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Strange and ever after, p.4
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       Strange and Ever After, p.4

           Susan Dennard
 

  That was fine by me. “What are they then?”

  “Parachutes.” At my blank look, he explained, “They’re for safety. If for some reason we have to hightail it from the ship but we’re still in the air, then you put one of those on your back. When you yank that piece of fabric beside the strap”—he motioned to a dangling flap of canvas—“a parachute will come flyin’ out. It’ll fill with air and stop your fall.”

  “Oh.” My forehead creased as I tried to imagine how a piece of fabric could possibly fight gravity.

  “Like I said,” Daniel added, “it’s a bit late to tell you since we’ll reach Marseille in a few minutes.” He turned back to the wheel, fidgeting with the spyglass. Then messing with a chain around his neck—a monocle.

  Anger tickled down my spine at the sight of it. “Why do you keep that, Daniel?” It was one of many opulent gifts from Madame Marineaux and the Marquis. They had heaped us with new gowns and suits and jewelry, and they’d distracted us from les Morts with parties and meetings and meals.

  And it had all been a part of Marcus’s carefully laid plans to get information on the Black Pullet. Once we had realized that the Marquis was none other than Marcus’s uncle—when Joseph had seen a portrait of the Marquis’s sister and recognized her as Marcus’s mother—it had been too late to stop what was already in motion. Jie was gone; the Marquis was dead.

  Daniel glanced at the monocle as if surprised. “I keep it because it’s useful. It lets me see all the small details on my work.”

  “But it was from Madame Marineaux.”

  “So is that shirt you’re wearing.” He frowned and flicked a finger at his thigh. “These pants are too. Besides, have you ever tried to turn a screw the size of a pinhead?”

  I gave a soft “hmmm.” He had a point. . . .

  Clack, clack, clack. He was back to messing with the spyglass.

  “Daniel.” I scooted closer to him.

  His shoulders rose; his fidgeting quickened.

  I moved even closer until Daniel’s fingers—and the spyglass—froze.

  “Are you angry with me?” I asked quietly. “For earlier? With . . . Oliver?”

  “No.” He closed the spyglass. “I’m just confused, I reckon. One minute you’re hard as nails and don’t need help from anyone. Then the next you’re . . .” He blushed. “Well, the next minute you’re soft.” His voice almost cracked on that word. “And it’s only then that you seem to want me around.”

  “Soft?” I repeated in a squeaky tone. His blush brightened, and I could only assume he referred to our kiss from the night before. I had initiated it; he had responded—perhaps too much. We had fallen so deeply into the taste and feel of each other that we’d lost sight of the real world.

  “Daniel,” I started, just as he said, “Empress.”

  Our mouths clamped shut, and we stared at each other. “Y-you first,” I finally said.

  “Are you . . .” He coughed lightly and pushed the spyglass into his pocket. “Don’t get mad, all right? But I gotta ask this.” His breath huffed out, and then he blurted, “Are you in love with him?”

  I cocked my head, not understanding the question. “In love with whom?”

  “Oliver.”

  I reared back. “Why would you ask that? Or even think that?”

  “It’s just . . . That is . . .” He moaned and rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re so close to him.”

  “Are you jealous?”

  “No,” he insisted. But then he shook his head. “Well, maybe I am. I lost someone that way—to another man. So I want to know now if anyone’s out there with designs on your heart. I can’t handle all this back-and-forth between us, so I’d like a solid idea of where I stand.” He nodded as if satisfied with this declaration.

  But I was not satisfied. In fact, my breath seemed to trap itself in my lungs as the meaning of his words slithered through my brain.

  And as three months of hurt came rising to the surface.

  “A solid idea?” My voice trembled. “You have no right to ask that of me, Daniel! Not after you left me in Philadelphia. I asked you for the same thing—do you recall? I wanted to know where I stood, and you crushed me. So pray tell, why should I make any promises to you now?”

  His lips screwed shut, and he surprised me by lowering his gaze to his feet. “I thought I was doing what was best for you in Philadelphia. I thought you ought to find someone who your ma would like—who could make you happy. And keep you comfortable.”

  “And of course I had no say in the matter.” I folded my arms over my chest and stared out the window. We were almost to the coastline now, and a series of jagged hills rose up and up to the east.

  “I really did mean well.” Daniel’s voice was low and urgent. But I did not look his way, so he returned his hands to the wheel and shifted his own focus to the horizon.

  “Mean well,” I repeated to myself. Then louder, “And in Paris, when you screamed at me about my new hand—did you mean well then? Or in the lab, when you suggested that I hurt myself on the crystal clamp. Did you mean well then?”

  His knuckles went white as he squeezed the wheel. “I know I don’t always handle things right. I ain’t . . . I mean, I am not polished. My temper always causes more trouble than I mean to. I’m just . . .” His eyes flicked to me then back ahead. “I’m protective of the people I care about. Too protective. When I saw your new hand and your demon, my vision went red . . . and I didn’t think before I spoke.” Twisting the wheel left, he eased back one of the levers . . . and the balloon twisted sharply east.

  We had reached the water now, and the steep hillsides alongside the sea were lined with green vineyards and olive groves. It was peaceful and beautiful—and nothing like what warred in my heart.

  I wanted to forgive Daniel for leaving me in Philadelphia. Love was about forgiveness, right? Yet I could not seem to forget how much he had hurt me.

  After shoving the second lever in place, Daniel turned to me. “I’m sorry, Eleanor Fitt. Really. Truly. I’m sorry if I hurt you when I left Philadelphia. Or when I yelled at you in Paris. It ain’t . . .” He ground his teeth. “I mean, it is not easy to change. But I’m trying, Eleanor. I swear I am.”

  I could not breathe. I could not move. I could not speak. He was offering an apology. A genuine apology that I so desperately wanted to accept. I would not push Daniel away as Oliver wanted.

  Daniel seemed to understand my thoughts, for he took a long, hesitant step toward me. Then another, to fully close the space between us. “I am so sorry,” he said softly. His fingers came up to twine a lock of my hair. “Once we stop Marcus and get Jie back . . . well, then you can break this thing you have with Oliver, and it can be just us.”

  It’s not so simple, I thought. Oliver was bound to me until I learned the magic to set him free, and I prayed that Daniel would push the subject no further.

  But he was Daniel, and he had no idea when enough was enough.

  “And then Joseph says, with the proper trainin’, we can fix your magic too.”

  Ice shivered through my body. My hair pricked up. “Fix my magic.”

  “Mm-hmmm. Joseph says—”

  “But what if I don’t want to?” I pulled free from Daniel. “I realize you follow Joseph blindly, but—”

  “It ain’t blind, Empress. He knows best, so I take his lead.”

  “But does he know best?” I gestured between Daniel and me. “Joseph knows nothing about what we feel, and he knows nothing of my magic. I do not need fixing, Daniel. This is who I am now. Magic is a part of me—a part of my very soul—and I wish you and Joseph could accept that.”

  Daniel reached for me, his eyes wide and lips parted . . . but the hole in my chest was back. It was bigger and meaner than before—and it was so, so cold. As I staggered around and marched for the door, tears burned my eyes. Stinging, ridiculous tears that I did not want to cry any more than I wanted to hear Daniel’s inevitable apology.

  Perhaps Oliver was right: per
haps I did push my friends away—but it was not only me. They pushed back. From all directions, everyone wanted something from me. Oliver wanted his freedom, Allison wanted companionship, and Daniel wanted my heart. Joseph was the only person on this ship who seemed to understand that all that mattered right now was Jie and Marcus.

  But even Joseph wanted me to stay away from necromancy—even Joseph made stupid demands regarding friendship and power that I could not meet.

  I dug the heels of my hands into my eyes as I stumbled into my cabin. The only thing I had that I could still rely on was my magic. It had gotten me to the spirit realm and back, hadn’t it? It had helped me destroy Madame Marineaux and save Daniel and Joseph. My magic had stopped the Dead in Philadelphia as well as in Paris, and it would stop the Dead again.

  Lose you all in the end? I thought miserably, stopping before my porthole. Yes, perhaps I would, and perhaps it was precisely what Oliver wanted. But at least with no one telling me what to do, I would be left with the lone person who could kill Marcus and get this job done.

  Me.

  When the airship crested the final hill to Marseille, my thoughts were in another world—one in which Marcus was before me and my revenge finally had its outlet.

  It was then, just as I reached for the ivory fist, that all of Marseille appeared. My hand jerked from my pocket, and I pressed my face against the porthole. Crowded with white buildings and red roofs, Marseille rose up and outward like a bowl. It sat right on the Mediterranean’s edge, hugging a long harbor on all sides—and then the Gulf of Lion beyond.

  Steamers and sailing boats dotted the waters, and the closer we puttered, the more clearly I could make out the huge merchant vessels and the more picturesque fishing boats. After the empty expanse of the Provençal desert, Marseille was a flourishing, vibrant place.

  Soon I could even see individual people and carts, all scurrying about like ants on the cobblestone streets of the city. Faces turned up toward us, hands over brows like visors. . . . But strangely enough, they almost immediately snapped back down.

  The airship slowed and then stopped completely above an oblong wharf running into the heart of the city. If my history lessons served me right, that was the Old Port: the very first harbor upon which Marseille had been founded thousands of years before.

  I ran my gaze over the dirty waters of the Old Port, then east to the elegant buildings along the harbor—and then farther east and up the hill . . .

  Until I gasped and had to clutch at the porthole to stay upright.

  For there was the Notre-Dame de La Garde. It was impossible to miss, the enormous white basilica rising above the rooftops of Marseille. Upon its limestone outcropping and with an ornate bell tower that gleamed in the sunlight, the Notre-Dame stood higher than anything. And at its top, shining like fire, was a huge copper statue of the Virgin Mary. She stood guard over the entire city: Notre-Dame de la Garde, Our Lady of the Guard.

  I tried to swallow, but I suddenly found my throat tight as two thoughts warred for space in my brain.

  It looks just like the watercolor Mama had in the parlor. That thought flickered, an uninvited, vicious reminder that my mother would never get to see Marseille. Or anywhere.

  The second thought was a better one—and I made myself latch on to it. Marcus will be here soon. And I will slash open his throat.

  I scanned the city streets for any sign of the train depot. For any sign of where Marcus and Jie would arrive. . . . But then we began to drop, and the port surged in closer as my ears shrieked painfully. I winced, clapping my hands over them. Even my stomach felt as if it had been left a hundred feet above.

  Then, in an abrupt jolt, we stopped moving. I peered through the porthole once more and found us floating over the harbor, over the ships tied to the pier. A confused fisherman gaped up beneath our shadow. When our ladder suddenly clacked down, he scurried below his boat’s deck.

  As Daniel shinnied down to the dock and set to roping us into place, I examined the shop fronts around the Old Port and the narrow, cobblestoned roads branching behind. Carts and carriages hurried away—as if their drivers all had somewhere to be. Jobs, perhaps? Yet even as this thought flittered through my brain, I knew it was not right.

  But before I could consider the strange exodus of afternoon traffic, the airship’s engines were cut . . .

  And the wind hurtled into us, grabbing hold of the balloon. My face hit the porthole with a crunch—then I wobbled backward. Side to side, up and down, the wind did not let us go. If it had not been for the seething hunger in my gut, I did not think I would have the nerve to climb down that listing ladder.

  But Marcus was so close.

  Once Daniel, Joseph, and Oliver were off the airship, I left Allison chewing her lip in the cargo hold, and I battled the wind and the swinging ladder. When at last I dropped onto the street, I felt absolutely ill—so much so that I had to bend over, rest my hands on my knees, and stare into the murky depths of the harbor.

  But looking at the water only seemed to make my stomach revolt more. It was filthy, and the oppressive afternoon heat sent a stench rising up that, if I stared hard enough, I imagined I could see.

  Ultimately, I pressed a hand over my mouth and shuffled to Oliver nearby. He stood in the middle of the wide cobblestone boulevard—the Quai de Rive Neuve, according to a placard on the nearest building—with his hands in his pockets and looking for all the world like a tourist.

  Daniel, meanwhile, was several feet away, inspecting a map of the city. His forehead was scrunched up, and he seemed to be mumbling to himself about “no direct route in this blasted city.” He wore his leather bandolier, and the four holsters held loaded pulse pistols.

  Beside him was Joseph, who could not seem to keep his gaze still. North, into the city, then south . . . then east up the hill, then west into the sun. He fidgeted with his bandages, tugged at his jacket, and looked as anxious as I felt. On one arm hung his physician’s bag, and I could only guess that there were pulse bombs, pulse pistols, and crystal clamps within.

  The pulse bombs and pistols created an electromagnetic pulse that acted very much as Joseph’s electricity did: it blasted the Dead back to the spirit realm. They could be unwieldy and inefficient, but there was no denying they were effective.

  As for the crystal clamps, they operated on piezoelectricity. It was brilliant really—as all of Daniel’s inventions tended to be. A copper clamp held a large chunk of quartz that, when squeezed, produced an electric current. The electricity then moved through the copper and into Joseph’s arm.

  Or into my arm, except . . .

  Joseph met my eyes, and as if reading my mind, he walked to me and unbuckled his bag. “I know the crystal clamp is hard for you to use, Eleanor.” His gaze flitted to Oliver. “But you should take one anyway. As a precaution, non?”

  He withdrew the crooked, copper clamp with its spring-loaded handle. The uncut crystal the size of my fist glittered in the sun. For Joseph, this was an invaluable tool—a constant and immediate source of electricity. But for me . . .

  “I am not comfortable with electricity,” I said, meeting his dark, serious eyes. “You keep it.”

  His head shook once. “I may only use one clamp at a time.” He wiggled his right hand. “I need these fingers to expel the power I draw in. So please, take it.” He pressed it into my palm, and, with a frown, I closed my hand around it.

  I could sense Oliver’s displeasure—his hatred for the device—so I quickly shoved it into my pocket. I wanted my demon to know that I would not use it unless I absolutely had to—assuming, of course, I could even use it properly.

  My first attempt to use the clamp had ended in too much power. I had accidentally raised a corpse. . . . And of course, my second attempt had stripped away part of Oliver’s soul.

  But when Oliver stepped close to Joseph and me, it was not the clamp that seemed to be bothering him. “Something isn’t right,” he said in a hushed tone—as if he feared being overheard. “Either
we have scared everyone off, or something else has.” He dipped his head to the quai.

  I started—and Joseph flinched too. Whatever traffic had claimed the streets when we had landed was absent now. The stores and cobblestones held only a few weathered souls, and they were hurrying toward shaded alleys or ship decks as fast as their feet could carry them.

  “Perhaps,” Joseph said as we watched a fisherman slink belowdecks, “it is merely time for an afternoon nap. The sun is quite intense. . . .” Yet even as he spoke, he frowned as if he knew a break could not possibly draw away the entire city.

  Daniel approached. His map swooshed in the wind. He briefly met my eyes . . . then turned to Joseph. “Maybe we should just be glad everyone is gone. It makes things easier.”

  I gulped and swept my gaze up to the Notre-Dame. Figures still scurried in the streets . . . away from the Old Port. Away from us.

  But before I could speak my concerns, Allison’s voice lashed out. “Eleanor.”

  I twisted around—and winced. She was wobbling off the ladder, and her face looked as green as mine must have been. Yet, unlike me, she forced her chin high and extended her parasol toward me like a rapier. A master beckoning her servant. I hurried over.

  “Someone will have to collect my bags,” she declared. “I refuse to leave my things unprotected on that airship while I wait for you.” She threw me a sideways glare. “And I suppose I shall hire a carriage to take me to the nearest hotel. Though I see no one about. What sort of city . . .”

  A wind kicked up, even rougher than before, and carried her final words away.

  “What?” I shouted, moving closer.

  “Where are all the carriages?” she yelled back, but the wind thundered even harder. It swept at her petticoats. She shrieked and grabbed at her skirts—only to drop her parasol. It clattered and rolled toward the edge of the dock.

  I dived for it—as did she. But with her hands pressed awkwardly to her knees, she stumbled forward. . . .

  The wind shoved her over completely. She hit the ground with a scream, and I snatched up the parasol.

 
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