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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Arabella The Traitor of Mars

The Adventures of Arabella Ashby (Volume 3)

David D. Levine

Tor Books

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1

THE VICTORY JUBILEE


Arabella descended the steps beside London Bridge in a great rush, Captains Singh and Fox and Lady Corey following behind at a more stately pace. Spread out below across the frozen river lay the Victory Jubilee, celebrating the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Venus. It was night, and the lights of the festival reflected dully from the ice below, echoing the stars which winked crisply in the black sky above. “Do be careful!” Captain Singh called.

“La, sir, you are far too cautious!” she called back, coquettishly.

“But we have not yet proved your foot upon ice!” Captain Singh had been born in India, and despite being widely traveled on Earth, Mars, and Venus and the interplanetary atmosphere between, had little experience of ice or snow. His formality, caution, and intellect were at once his most endearing and most annoying qualities.

Arabella herself had little more experience with ice than her husband—her previous sojourn on Earth had not included any such phenomenon as this—but so delighted was she at the prospect of the Jubilee that she refused to be deterred. “Pshaw!” she replied, laughing. “It has functioned perfectly thus far!”

Nonetheless, she checked her pace at the bottom of the stairs, stepping cautiously onto the scuffed translucent surface. The paths were laid with sand to provide steady footing, but so great was the pedestrian traffic that the sand was constantly swept aside. But her artificial foot’s clockwork mechanism was performing as designed, mimicking the natural foot’s spring on each step, and she found her footing to be entirely acceptable. Though she had confidence in the design that she and Captain Singh had worked out together after her injury in the closing moments of the Battle of Venus and constructed during the subsequent voyage to Earth, she was pleased that it functioned well in this unusual circumstance.

And a very unusual circumstance it was, as the Thames very rarely froze over and had not done so in nearly twenty years. The current exceptionally cold temperatures were due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies, whose dust girdled the globe and blocked the rays of the life-giving Sun; the planet’s veil of smoke had been plainly visible from above upon Arabella’s recent approach to Earth. “We are quite fortunate,” Lady Corey had declared, “that our ships of the air are able to observe and report upon this and other phenomena of the planetary atmosphere. If not, we would be shivering in the dark, with no idea how long the phenomenon will persist, and not even know the reason why!”

Taking her attention away from the ice, Arabella looked out across the Jubilee. The scene reminded her in some ways of the weekly market in Fort Augusta on Mars, with rows of stalls and shops and stands selling all manner of souvenirs, food, and drinks, whose smoke perfumed the chill air deliciously. It was also reminiscent of the Mars Docks not too many miles away, with huge follies of wood and paper and vast fabric pavilions taking the place of the Marsmen and other aerial ships there assembled. In terms of population it resembled the most crowded balls she had attended during her previous visit to England, but multiplied a thousand-fold and spread out across the ice between the bridges—the babble of conversation, music, and the braying of animals was nearly deafening.

Her companions caught her up as she presented her ticket to one of the men who stood at the base of each stairway. These men, mostly watermen and lightermen unemployed by the freezing of the Thames, charged thruppence for admission to the ice and a penny to depart—it was their only income until the river should clear, and Arabella had paid it gladly. Surely such a spectacle as this would never recur in her lifetime, and she intended to take in every aspect of it that she could.

“You were absolutely right!” she cried to Captain Fox as he joined her on the ice. “It is a marvel to behold!”

“I told you,” he replied with a smirk. “In celebration of our great victory, the whole city is done up like a Port Charlotte whore.” He turned to his wife. “Beg pardon.” Lady Corey’s glare in return combined long-suffering vexation with unfeigned, deep affection.

In truth, Arabella often wondered what the Foxes saw in each other. He was a self-centered, impulsive privateer captain, a man of great and sometimes uncontrollable appetites; she was a very proper and composed lady of excellent breeding, nearly ten years her husband’s senior. Indeed, it was Lady Corey who had educated Arabella in the ways of a young woman of quality—to the extent, Arabella herself was forced to admit, that such education was even possible. But both Foxes were charming, though in very different ways; both intelligent; both wealthy; both brave and decisive in a crisis. And it had been in a very great crisis, the escape from the Marieville prisoner-of-war camp and subsequent Battle of Venus, that the two of them had come together and, quite unexpectedly to all, fallen in love.

Having taken her bearings, Arabella spied her destination ahead on the right, and noted smoke and flames beginning to rise from it. “Hurry!” she called to her companions, rushing ahead. “The fireworks at the Castle of Discord are about to begin!”

The Castle of Discord was the center-piece of the fair, upon which all the lanes of shops and caravans converged like the spokes of a wheel, and a grand fireworks display was promised for the opening night of the Jubilee. Already a vast crowd had assembled on every side of it; their voices combined in an eager, anticipatory pandemonium, mingled with the music of hurdy-gurdies and the cries of vendors selling pastries and meat pies.

Arabella pushed through the thickening crowd until she reached a point where the view of the Castle was not too obscured by the hats and shoulders of those before her, then paused until her husband and the Foxes could catch her up. But as she was looking over her shoulder in search of them, a tremendous boom sounded. Startled, she turned to see what had caused it.

The Castle of Discord was an enormous structure, larger than a three-story house, built of wood and canvas and painted to resemble ancient, mossy stone. A grim and imposing edifice, it was surmounted by crenellations, behind which stood painted figures of mustachioed men in French Army uniforms with rifles, bayonets, and cannons. At the very top, a figure much larger than life, wearing a huge cocked hat worn athwartships, clearly represented Napoleon. And the boom which had drawn Arabella’s attention had come from the launch of rockets all around the Castle, which burst in a fusillade of red and white fireworks in the air above to the general approbation of the crowd.

This first broadside of fireworks was answered by another fusillade from the Castle’s upper reaches, this one in blue and gold, which drew in turn another, still larger response from the ground. Soon huge flowers and sheets of colored flame were clashing in the air above the Castle, matched by sprays of sparks and Catherine wheels mounted upon its painted-canvas ramparts. The windows of the Castle now illuminated, showing colored images and moving shadows representing major battles of the wars just concluded. The crowd roared its approval of each great gout of flame and crash of gunpowder; one man near Arabella cried out that it was “the very duplicate of a real cannonade!”

Despite her enjoyment of the spectacle, this comment gave Arabella pause. For it caused her to consider the great gulf between the harmless and beautiful display before her and the grim, deadly reality of an aerial battle—the sound alone of which carried more destructive power than all the pretended violence of this entire performance—and to realize just how different her experience of the war had been from that of the people around her, most of them Londoners born and bred who had never set foot on an aerial man-of-war or a battlefield.

On and on the fusillades continued, fireworks bursting, cannon booming, and smoke rising in a choking cloud. The crowd’s enthusiasm rose, and the sound and fury of the pretended assault upon the Castle of Discord doubled and redoubled. So great, in fact, was the fire and smoke that the Castle itself became completely obscured … and then, without warning, from the midst of this vast dark cloud sounded a mighty crash, greater than that which had gone before, accompanied by an abrupt cessation of the fireworks. The crowd stood stunned in the sudden darkness and silence, the fire and noise of the mock battle replaced by a few flickering flames and the occasional cough.

And then a cheer rose up from the front ranks of the spectators—a cheer which heightened as it spread backward and further backward. The cheer crashed like a wave over Arabella’s position as the smoke cleared, revealing that the Castle of Discord had completely vanished! The painted canvas walls had fallen away under cover of the smoke, revealing a grand edifice of white marble, enlightened with stained glass windows and surmounted with a gilded dome and lofty spires. Lights glimmered on within and without, revealing to all the majesty of the structure which must have stood hidden within the Castle all along.

“Behold!” came a voice as the cheering began to die down. “The Castle of Discord has been destroyed! Behold in its place … the Temple of Concord!”

At this announcement the crowd began cheering and shouting in still greater earnest, ragged calls of “hip, hip, hurrah!” rising in competition from various parts of the vast icy plain upon which the new Temple stood, and echoing from the ice, the river banks, and the side of London Bridge close by.

Then, to Arabella’s surprise, the happy crowd around her fell suddenly silent, staring behind her as though at some supernatural apparition. Furthermore, from that direction she could now hear a peculiar sound, which combined burbling, hissing, and clattering. She turned to the sound … and beheld an amazing sight.

George Augustus Frederick, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was neither as handsome and slim as his official portrait, which she had seen in Government House in Fort Augusta, nor as grotesque as the caricatures in the gazettes. Yet, despite the peculiarity of the circumstances, she recognized him immediately—and even if she had not, the deference of those about him made immediately clear that this was a personage of extreme importance.

He rode in a Merlin chair, with two large wheels behind and a single wheel in front, the latter being steered by a sort of tiller held by the occupant. This much was not unexpected—as every one knew, the Prince suffered horribly from gout. But instead of an attendant pushing, behind the Prince there was an engine of some kind. She could not see it well from here, but by the sound—which she now identified as boiling water and the hiss of steam—it must be some sort of very compact steam engine. Cables ran from it to levers on the chair’s sides, presumably allowing the Prince to control the chair’s forward motion. She longed to inspect the mechanism.

As to the Prince himself, he was a very large man. His broad stomach was the first thing one noticed, matched by substantial legs and thick arms … he must weigh seventeen stone or more. The whole was wrapped in an ornate military uniform: red coat dripping with gold braid, tight breeches, and a cocked hat as enormous as the painted Napoleon’s. One foot wore a high Hessian boot polished to a mirror sheen; the other was swaddled in a huge soft bandage. The uniform’s high collar tried and failed to conceal a fleshy double chin. Yet though his lower lip pouted out like some enormous child’s, his eyes showed intelligence, humor, and even compassion.

“Mrs. Singh,” said one of the Prince’s companions, “may I present to you His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales?”

“Your Royal Highness,” she said, dropping a trembling curtsey.

“Oh please, call me Prinny.” He gestured her to rise. “Every one of any consequence does.”

Arabella felt her jaw drop. She looked around at the encircling crowd, which mingled common people, soldiers, and—those closest to the Prince—men and women whose clothing marked them as people of very high quality indeed. They seemed as astonished as she. “I, sir? I am of no consequence whatsoever!”

The Prince pulled up on one of the levers beside his seat, causing the chair to propel itself toward her. He then brought it to a stop beside her, the engine hissing and clattering, and took up her hand. Stunned, she let him do so. “Au contraire, madam. You are, or so I am told, one of the chief architects of our victory over Napoleon. I have been intending for some little time to send a note of gratitude and congratulations to you, and of course your husband the dashing Captain Singh. But that fellow there”—he gestured foppishly with his off hand to a gray-haired gentleman, oddly dressed, who stood with a female Negro companion—“pointed you out to me here, and so I am able to extend my felicitations to you in person.”

“I … I am honored,” Arabella managed. “But … really I did only what was necessary. Any loyal subject would have done the same.”

“Perhaps. But not any other loyal subject did.” He kissed her hand, then released it; it fell limp to her side. “I would be delighted if you and your companions would join me in a drink.” And without another word he wheeled his conveyance about and headed off, the engine puttering and spitting out steam and drops of hot water onto the ice.

Still trembling, Arabella found herself swept up in the Prince’s coterie. Captain Singh supported her arm—indeed, he practically kept her standing by main force—as they traveled in a group across the ice, the murmuring crowd parting before the Prince’s machine and rejoining behind his party like the turbulent air in the wake of a passing ship.

They made their way to a large illuminated pavilion, entering between liveried attendants who bowed deeply as they drew the door-cloth aside. The air within, redolent of wine and snuff, was far warmer than without; the hubbub of the crowd, contained by the fabric walls and roof, still louder; and the quality of the company much more elevated. “Prinny!” called one, and “You must try this sherry!” another.

Some one handed a glass—fine crystal—to Arabella, and she took it, the alternative seeming to be allowing it to smash upon the ice at her feet. It was extremely full, so she took a sip, finding it to be something of deep flavor and considerable strength. It was really very delicious, and she sipped at it to calm herself as the crowd swirled around her like the turbulent winds of the Horn. So numerous and animated were the company that she felt herself battered by the noise alone, let alone the elbows and shoulders which frequently bumped against her, yet she felt it would be impolite to depart.

Captain Singh, beside her, held a glass of his own, but she noted that he did not appear to have imbibed any of it. His demeanor, always reserved, seemed still more so now; he held himself straight and aloof, looking out at the assemblage from his considerable height as though from the cross-trees of his own mainmast. The assemblage, in turn, looked upon this tall, lean, very dark man in a Mars Company captain’s buff jacket as though a Martian had suddenly stepped into the tent. Captain Fox, meanwhile, seemed to be in his element; along with Lady Corey he was already engaged in uproarious conversation.

“You do not seem to be enjoying yourself, madam.”

Arabella looked down to the source of the voice, realizing that she had drifted away somewhere inside herself. It was the Prince, who held a glass of his own. “If you please, sir,” she said, “I find myself quite discomfited by the noise of the crowd. The contrast with the still of the interplanetary atmosphere is quite … quite discomfiting.” She chided herself for repetition, and took another sip of her drink.

“Indeed.” He drank deeply from his own glass, finishing it, then held it out negligently to one side. A silent attendant immediately appeared and refilled it, even as the Prince continued to converse. “Though this Jubilee is truly extraordinary—the expense would be enough to make even my steward blanch—the presence of so many of the common people is really quite tedious.” He propelled his chair closer and leaned in, conspiratorially. “I plan a private victory celebration at my home in Brighton next week,” he said, his glance taking in both Arabella and Captain Singh. “It would give me pleasure if you would join me.”

Arabella, amazed and rather overwhelmed by the offer, looked to her husband for advice. His face remained impassive, though she thought she could detect some hesitation around the eyes. “If you wish, my dear,” he said.

Why did every thing in London have to move so fast? But still … to escape from this jostling crowd was appealing, and to visit the Prince’s private home—an architectural marvel, from all she had heard—was an opportunity which might never be repeated. “I am honored to accept your invitation,” she replied, bowing deeply—and immediately regretting it, as her head spun quite distressingly.

“Excellent!” the Prince cried, patting his free hand against the one which held his wine in a semblance of applause. He then raised his glass. “To new friends!”

“To new friends,” Arabella replied, and drained her glass.

“To new friends,” Captain Singh muttered, and sipped.

* * *

Arabella peered from the Prince’s carriage, the wind from the horses’ rapid progress chilling her face. She rubbed her hands together beneath the blanket on her lap and clapped them to her frozen nose, not wanting to miss the first sight of Brighton Pavilion.

The Prince’s caravan consisted of three luxurious carriages, plus a wagon which carried the Prince’s Merlin chair. Arabella and her captain shared the third carriage with Colonel the Honorable G. Dawson Damer, the Honorable Frederick Byng, and Byng’s enormous dog, a placid elderly poodle by the name of Buck. For the first hour of the journey the two Honorables had conversed excitedly between each other on the topics of hunting, horses, politics, and wine, including Arabella and Captain Singh only occasionally and reluctantly. Eventually, though, the conversation had trailed off and the two men, sharing a flask, had eventually drifted off to sleep. Captain Singh too, following a long-standing habit, took advantage of any occasion in which his attentions were not absolutely required to close his eyes and rest. For her part, Arabella had been largely content to admire the passing countryside, whose peculiar trees, farm-houses, and occasional snowdrifts were strange and marvelous to her.

After six uneventful hours of travel the town of Brighton had begun to appear, with sparse farm-houses replaced by more frequent, more substantial dwellings, and the driver had knocked upon the carriage roof to point out the spires of Brighton Pavilion in the distance. Arabella ducked and weaved her head, trying to get a better view of this magnificent structure through the strange trees, black and leafless, which grew on either side of the road. Bright sunlight, sharp and clear as the chill air through which it shone, flickered in the branches.

And then, quite suddenly, they rounded a curve and the whole pavilion hove at once into view. Arabella could barely suppress a gasp.

The enormous building—broader than the eponymous fort of Fort Augusta, though not nearly so high—sprawled across several acres, the bright Mars-red of its stones shining in the sun and contrasting oddly with the brown of the English hills beyond. It was designed, as she had been informed on the journey, in resemblance to Martian architecture, with the typical Martian slant-sided, flat-topped arch visible in profusion, and sweeping curves of shining steel leaping into the sky from every corner. But, due to Earth’s higher gravity and the lower quality of English steel, those metal spires were thicker and less elegant than those of the satrap’s palace in Sor Khoresh. All in all it seemed like a child’s sketch of a Martian palace—a talented child, admittedly, but one who had only ever seen pictures of Martian palaces, never actually visited one.

As the carriage drew nearer, Arabella saw that, like Martian royal palaces, the pavilion’s stones were carved with a multitude of figures in bas-relief. But these carvings represented not Martians but human beings—ancient warriors with spears and shields, and women in a shocking state of undress—along with horses and dogs … though not a single poodle.

The carriages pulled into the drive, disgorging their passengers with a great creaking of wood and groaning of men. The Prince’s carriage, heavily weighted as it was with the corpulent Prince and five of his closest companions, creaked the loudest as they emerged and saw the greatest complaints. “I swear,” the Prince remarked to the world as he was helped down from the carriage with the aid of a cane, “that journey grows longer every year.” As he reached the ground, one of the coterie of servants that had descended upon the arriving caravan silently handed him a steaming mug. “Still, it is good to be home.” He drank deeply.

Arabella herself marveled silently at the soaring structure above her. From this close distance it could easily be seen that, rather than being constructed entirely of red sandstone as the equivalent Martian palaces were, only the lower, structural portions of the pavilion were stone; the upper reaches were actually painted wood, though so cunningly executed that the difference could scarcely be detected. The bas-reliefs also served to disguise expansive windows, where a real Martian palace would be of solid stone, perforated only by arrow-slits and hot-oil sluices. Plainly this was a fantasia—a folly of a palace, which merely aped the stern defensive strength of its models on Mars.

She contemplated, as she passed through the slab-sided entrance gate, to what degree this reflected the personality and priorities of its owner.

The entrance-hall, had she not been warned of its design by the Honorables, would have been an utter shock. Even with this warning, it was still overwhelming. Whereas the pavilion’s exterior was Martian in design, the interior was done in a Venusian style, with green brick, black stone, and ceramic tile every where. The ceilings were hung with white Venusian silk, lavishly embroidered, and enameled statues of finned and tentacled Venusian gods glowered from every corner. Illumination was provided by hissing gas flames, contained in lanterns of green glass, which approximated the light of the giant glow-worms employed by the actual Venusians. Arabella had seen gas street-lamps in London, but had never before encountered gas illumination indoors.

Arabella gaped in every direction as servants took the fur cape and muff with which she had been provided for the journey. She was immediately glad of their service, as the room was warmed to a nearly Venusian level of heat by the urn-shaped patent stoves which stood at intervals along the walls.

“So!” cried the Prince, rolling in from the cold upon his puttering, clattering contrivance. “Captain and Mrs. Singh—you have just recently returned from Venus. What do you think of my entrance-hall? My decorator has been hard at work upon it for nearly two years now.”

“It is … most impressive,” the captain said. Arabella reserved judgement—or was perhaps stunned into silence by the hall’s extravagant bad taste. “Though I must confess we had little experience of the native Venusian architecture or ornament during our stay on that planet. We were the unwilling guests of Napoleon, as you may know, in a town which had been built by and for the French. And quite hastily assembled as well.”

The Prince’s face fell, just fractionally, as Captain Singh spoke. Had Arabella not happened to be looking directly at him, she might not have noted his disappointment. “I apologize for your treatment at the Great Ogre’s hands. I am assured, however, by other travelers that my humble home does credit to the finest palaces and temples of that distant planet, to which I hope some day to pay a visit.” He gestured inward. “Perhaps your stay here will serve to whet your appetite for Venusian art and architecture.”

The party moved through a vast curtained archway into a long gallery, which plainly served as the pavilion’s central avenue. A rich carpet in green and black bore a pattern of water running over stones; the walls were painted with flowers and vines in fanciful—and, to Arabella’s eye, entirely invented—colors and shapes; and from the high ceiling hung a massive iron chandelier, also designed in imitation of vines, dripping with green glass baubles. Ceramic statues of Venusian gods stood here and there, man-sized and larger, though in this vast space they were not so intimidating as they had been in the entrance-hall. This gallery, too, was heated to an unpleasant degree by patent stoves; Arabella daubed at her face with her handkerchief and fanned herself with one hand.

“If you please,” murmured a servant, “I will conduct you to your chambers.” His clothing was European in style, but made of white Venusian silk with green piping that matched the walls. He led them up a grand staircase—the railings of dark wood were carved to resemble twisted branches—and down the hall to a room where their traveling cases had already been unpacked. The Venusian theme continued here, though thankfully to a much more restrained degree, and though the room was larger than any bedchamber Arabella had ever before experienced it was, at least, neither as inordinately vast nor as drastically overheated as the house’s public spaces. “Dinner will be at six o’clock. Do you require any thing?”

“I do not believe so,” Captain Singh replied.

“The bell-pull is there.” He gestured to a tapestry ribbon with a pattern of vines in the corner. “Please feel free to call upon us for any need.” Then he bowed himself out.

“You are unhappy,” Arabella’s husband said to her as soon as the door had closed.

She stared over his shoulder at the painted wall for a time before replying. “If my wicked cousin Simon had nearly drowned,” she said at last, “and suffered the loss of half his wits under the water, he might have designed a … monstrosity like this.”

“The Prince’s taste is … cosmopolitan,” he hedged. “He pays homage to the styles of other planets.”

“Homage?” Arabella sniffed. “I would call it simple theft! He imitates his betters, no more.”

Captain Singh stiffened. “Permit me to remind you that we are discussing the Prince Regent of the entire British Empire! He has no betters!” But this argument did not seem very convincing even to him.

For a moment Arabella considered a sharp reply. But then she relented, and allowed her husband to fold her into his strong, warm arms. “I will attempt not to hold his taste in ornament too much against him.”

“He has, at least, provided us with a very comfortable private chamber,” he murmured into her shoulder.

“He has,” she agreed, and after that, for a time, there was no more conversation.

* * *

Later, Arabella and the captain dressed and found their way to the banqueting room. This room, though not nearly so long as the long gallery, was much broader, higher, and even more gaudily appointed. Pillars in the form of gigantic, fanciful trees supported a high domed ceiling, from the center of which was suspended a pair of enormous frogs, crafted of some shining metal with jeweled eyes, seeming frozen in the act of dancing about each other. Below the frogs hung an iron chandelier nearly thirty feet tall; it was illuminated by gas, the bright and hissing light harsh to both eye and ear, and its glass panels were painted with colored scenes of Venusian natives at work and play. It must, Arabella thought, weigh several tons, and she looked skeptically at the chain from which it hung, which seemed barely capable of supporting it.

Beneath this enormous fixture a magnificent table stretched over sixty feet in length. At its center, of course, sat the Prince, his bulk and his Merlin chair occupying what might otherwise have been space for three diners, and ranged to either side in order of precedence were over fifty people, all clearly men and women of importance.

Arabella’s table companion was one Robert Dundas, the Right Honorable Viscount Melville. He was a Scotsman, with a light mellifluous accent, and his jacket was of rich black superfine wool. “I am given to understand,” he said to her after the first fish course, “that you actually participated in the Battle of Venus as a combatant?”

“I played a small part,” she concurred modestly, then proceeded to relate her story of the battle. It was a story she had told many times since arriving on Earth and by now it was nearly routine, though she still took pleasure in the reactions of the hearers.

“Such times we find ourselves in.” He shook his head in wonderment. “In my position I have read many a battle report, but a female navigator is a marvel I have never before encountered.”

“And what position might that be?”

“First Lord of the Admiralty.”

“Heavens!” Arabella glanced down the table to where Captain Singh was conversing with his own dinner companion, an elderly woman with an extraordinarily large bonnet. “My husband, Captain Prakash Singh of the Honorable Mars Company airship Diana, would be most honored to speak with you.”

“Ah yes, the famous Captain Singh. I am aware of his presence here, though we have not yet had the chance to speak.” The waiter delivered the next course—beef with onions and pepper—and Dundas took a bite before continuing. “If I may ask, how came you to meet him?”

“I served as his cabin boy.” Though Dundas was a very disciplined man, she noted that his eyes reflected a very satisfying degree of surprise. “I was compelled to disguise myself as a boy and join his ship’s company in order to preserve my family fortune.”

He regarded her frankly. “I cannot imagine such an attractive girl as yourself being mistaken for a boy, even for a moment.”

She acknowledged the compliment with a bow of her head. “‘The apparel oft proclaims the man,’ as the Bard said. Replace this dress with an airman’s slops, and no one in this company would give me a second glance.” She sipped her wine. “I have found that most people rarely see beyond surfaces. Captain Singh is one of the perceptive few who can, and even he took some time to penetrate my disguise.”

“Perceptive, is he? And well respected by his men?”

“Very much so. His is a very happy crew.”

“But I have heard that he suffered a mutiny some years ago.”

“It is true that he did.” She felt her ire rising at the recollection. “I was aboard his ship myself at that time, and I will say from personal experience that it was motivated by the mutineers’ greed and intolerance rather than by any fault of the captain’s. Once the leader was exposed as a martinet and bully, the men’s loyalty to their captain reasserted itself and the mutiny rapidly collapsed.”

“It is … unusual, for a Mussulman to command an English vessel.” He took a bite, chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. “Has this intolerance caused any other difficulties for him?”

Arabella thought of the looks the Prince’s coterie had given him in the pavilion at the Jubilee. She thought of how the French had dismissed and belittled him on Venus … to their eventual regret. And she thought of Lady Corey’s objections to Arabella’s marriage to him, and the anguish he himself had shown when he had very nearly turned down her proposal, wanting to spare her the effects of bigotry. But what she said was, “None that he has been unable to overcome through intelligence, discipline, and kindness. Despite all objections to his color and creed, he has risen to the very highest ranks of the Honorable Mars Company, and served admirably under Nelson in the Battle of Venus.”

“So he has worked with the Navy?”

“Indeed! And for the last several months he has served as captain of the Admiral’s temporary flagship.”

Dundas tapped his silver fork against his lower lip, considering. “You have given me much to think about, Mrs. Singh,” he said at last. “I will be certain to speak with your husband over the cigars and port.”

Eventually, after countless courses of delicious food and much conversation on the weather, the latest advances of science and invention—“you simply must visit the kitchens, the Prince is so proud of the innovative equipment he has caused to be installed there”—and the prospects for prosperity now that decades of war had finally come to an end, the hostess, Lady Hertford, rose from her seat and conducted the ladies to the withdrawing-room, leaving the gentlemen to continue their conversation without the restraint required by female company. Arabella resented this separation, but there was little to be done about it. She nodded to Captain Singh as she passed, to which he replied with a deep bow of his head.

* * *

The withdrawing-room, though nearly as large as the banqueting room in plan, had a much lower ceiling and was far more restrained in ornament—apart from the several substantial iron columns that supported the rooms above, which were decorated as vine-wrapped Venusian trees with spreading limbs. Had it not been so very hot, Arabella would have found the space quite agreeable. The ladies seated themselves on the chairs and settees ranged about the carpeted floor and engaged in conversation, cards, and backgammon.

Arabella found herself in a game of whist with three other ladies, including Lady Hertford. Tall, handsome, and elegant, she wore her gray hair and matronly girth with panache. Every one knew her to be the Prince’s mistress, but Arabella saw no rancor or opprobrium toward her—indeed, the company seemed to treat her with the greatest respect. Princes and Admirals, she thought, did not seem to be subject to the same rules as the rest of society.

“Mrs. Singh, is it?” Lady Hertford said to Arabella after the game concluded and the two of them had been left alone with tea and biscuits. “An unusual name, and one which keeps coming up in conversation. May I assume the Mussulman is your husband?”

Arabella was growing tired of that word. “My husband is Captain Singh of the Honorable Mars Company, yes.”

“Ah.” Lady Hertford nodded. “This explains why it was that Mr. Reid mentioned him so favorably.”

“Mr. Thomas Reid?” Arabella asked, astonished. “Chairman of the Company?”

“The very same.” Lady Hertford smiled at Arabella’s reaction. “Do not be so amazed, Mrs. Singh. Your husband’s actions in the Battle of Venus put him among the greatest heroes the Company has produced in a hundred years. Some mark him as even greater than Lord Clive!” Arabella blinked, startled, at the comparison. Robert Clive—Clive of Mars, as every schoolboy knew him—was the general who had consolidated English rule over Saint George’s Land in the last century. “And your own accomplishments are scarcely less famous.”

“Oh, I could not possibly!”

“Do not be over-modest, my dear.” She leaned in, conspiratorially. “Prinny is extremely fond of you, you know.”

Arabella’s heart pounded at this revelation. “I am a married woman!” she blurted.

Lady Hertford shrugged. “As am I. But you need have no concerns about untoward advances, my dear. Prinny prefers his women more … substantial. No, his sentiments toward you are entirely avuncular. You are nearly the same age as his daughter, you know. As she has recently become engaged to Prince Leopold, and will soon be departing to begin her own independent life, I believe he may be casting about for another young woman to be his protégée.”

Arabella was not certain how she felt about this. “My intention is to return to my family plantation on Mars as soon as possible.”

“Do not dismiss the favors of a Prince so lightly, Mrs. Singh. His attentions can lead to greatly improved prospects for you and your husband.” She set down her tea and looked into Arabella’s eyes with great sincerity. “I warn you, he is fickle. But he is also manipulable. If you appeal to his self-importance, if you can convince him that his interests align with yours … there is no end to the opportunities he can bring to you.”

“Why are you telling me this? I am no one.”

Lady Hertford sat back in her chair. “At the moment.” She took up her tea-cup and regarded Arabella over its painted rim. “But you have a bit of celebrity, and a certain provincial charm, and your husband is poised for greater things.” She sipped her tea. “Consider it a favor from a friend.”

“I … I see.” Arabella raised her own tea, and was discomfited to find the liquid trembling in the cup. She steadied it with the other hand and sipped. “I will give your advice due consideration.”

“Please do. Remember, Mrs. Singh … a pawn can become a queen, if she reaches the last rank.”

* * *

Eventually the gentlemen finished their port and cigars and joined the ladies in the withdrawing-room. Captain Singh—resplendent in his best Mars Company captain’s buff coat, a sight very dear to her eyes—was deep in conversation with Dundas and another gentleman as they entered the room, but as Arabella approached he shook their hands and the three men parted.

“The Right Honorable Mr. Dundas was my dinner companion,” Arabella said to her husband as she took his arm, “and he did mention that he would be speaking with you after dinner. But who was the other? He seems vaguely familiar.”

“That was Mr. Reid.”

She smiled up at her husband. “You are moving in very rarified circles, Captain.”

“Indeed.” But his mood, always reserved, now seemed even more so.

“You are troubled.”

“I have been offered a very great opportunity.”

But before he could clarify this statement, the Prince came puttering up, bringing his conveyance to a wheezing, steam-spitting halt before the two of them.

“I am so terribly sorry I was not able to chat with you myself over port,” the Prince said to the captain, acknowledging Arabella’s presence with a nod. “The Princess’s wedding plans have become all-encompassing. But I see that you did manage to talk with Messrs. Dundas and Reid. I do hope you found their conversation enlightening?”

“It was … intriguing.”

“I must emphasize that this topic is not yet suitable for general conversation. But I am given to understand that you are eminently suited for the task at hand, and I hope to be able to discuss it with you in person later this week-end. Now, if you will excuse me, I see that Lady Hertford requires my attention.”

But when the Prince engaged the lever, the little steam engine let out a choking clatter and the chair refused to budge. The Prince immediately called for an engineer, and there was an awkward period of silence while the servants went in search of one. “May I examine the mechanism?” Arabella asked the Prince.

“I imagine so. But be aware—the steam can be frightfully hot.”

Arabella knew very little of steam power, but she was familiar with the basic principle. And, as she bent and peered at the engine’s shining brass, she saw that the system of wheels and jointed rods that connected it with the chair’s wheels was not dissimilar to clockwork movements she had seen before. But the steam cylinder, with its valves and fastenings glistening as though with dew, was more mysterious.

Before she could complete her examination, a frock-coated gentleman with a large leather satchel of tools emerged from the kitchens and none-too-gently directed her aside. After a few brisk adjustments, too rapid for her to follow, the engine resumed its previous rhythmic chug and the Prince, waving a cheery farewell, directed his machine away.

For a moment Arabella and the captain stood alone. “You must explain what that was all about,” she said to him.

“It has been a long evening,” he said, consulting his watch. Indeed, the hour had grown quite late. “Perhaps we should retire.”

This scarcely seemed a response, but the expression on Captain Singh’s face did not invite further discussion. Without a word she put her arm through his and they departed the room, saying good night to the company as they passed.

* * *

As soon as the bedchamber door closed behind them, Arabella turned to Captain Singh, regarding him with an unspoken question upon her face.

“I have been presented with a very substantial opportunity,” he repeated, then hesitated. “I was not able to discuss this with you in the withdrawing-room because my role as a government agent is not supposed to be known to you.”

Shortly after Napoleon’s escape from the far side of the Moon, Captain Singh had been sent to Venus on Mars Company business … or so the world had thought. The actuality was that he had been recruited by the Government as a secret agent and sent to Venus to investigate the Great Ogre’s plans there. But he had been captured and imprisoned there, and Arabella had traveled thence to aid his escape. Eventually they had discovered, investigated, and defeated Napoleon’s secret weapon, the armored airship Victoire, and along the way, with great reluctance, the captain had taken Arabella into his confidences. But he had never received authorization to do so.

Eventually Arabella’s silence compelled the captain to speak once more. “Messrs. Dundas and Reid, from their lofty positions in the Admiralty and Company respectively, are aware of my dual role as captain and agent, and they told me that they were very favorably impressed by my performance in the Marieville prisoner-of-war camp and in the subsequent Battle of Venus. They say that they are now in search of a man to lead a very significant operation on Mars, and that my combination of navigational expertise, demonstrated leadership ability, and experience of the Mars trade makes me uniquely suited for the position.”

“Why, that is wonderful news! Why are you so hesitant?” For his countenance and attitude were not at all what she would have expected from a man who had been so lavishly praised by his very highest superiors.

“For one thing, I am only one of several men under consideration … though I am the only one of them on Earth at this moment. For another, they … they questioned my loyalty to Crown and Company, due to my … origins. I assured them that I am entirely devoted to my adopted country and to the Company in whose service I have spent my entire adult life, but they did not seem completely convinced. And … and they were not entirely forthcoming about their plans. I gather that the operation will involve both command of multiple airships and negotiations with the Martians, but further details will only be provided to the man selected to lead the operation. Although I understand that confidentiality must be maintained, something in their unspoken demeanor leads me to wonder with some … unease, what lies beneath that cloak of secrecy.” He shook his head. “I should not even be telling you this much.”

“Of course you should not.” She embraced him then, and his arms wrapped around her shoulders. “But you know that I am discretion personified.”

“I seem to recall that, on Venus, your ‘discretion’ eventually brought practically the entire crew of Touchstone into our confidences.”

“And if I had not done so, we would still be there, and Napoleon’s armored fleet would certainly have conquered the entire solar system by now.”

He sighed, his chest pressing and relaxing against hers. “You are a most vexing young person, boy second class Ashby.”

“And you are honorable to a very fault, my maharaja.” She held him more tightly. “Do they require an immediate response?”

“I must give them my reply before we all leave Brighton.”

“Well, then, that will be no sooner than to-morrow. So let us sleep upon the question.”

But sleep did not come, at least not for a while. And even after Captain Singh was gently snoring away, Arabella found herself staring into the bright eye of Earth’s enormous moon, wondering what the morrow would bring.


Copyright © 2018 by David D. Levine