Alex and Joe stared at each other, and I could see that Joe in particular was close to panic.
"Permission for my friends to be relieved, Captain?" I asked.
"Granted. In fact we'll change watches. Desk… ah. Mr Bull, would you mind taking the desk?"
Mr Bull was the semaphore-reader for my watch, and he moved to the communications desk and sat down.
"Thank you. Now please announce a change of watch – Number Three watch to stand down, Number One to take up duty."
The announcement was duly made.
"Thank you," I said to my uncle. "You have the bridge."
"I have the bridge," he acknowledged. "We'll have a full debrief when we get back to Culham. Mr Bull, can you use the radio device until your relief gets here?"
He could – I'd given all the communications staff on the ship a run-through when I'd first brought the radio onto the bridge – and so we were free to leave. I beckoned to Sparrer and Billy, and all six of us made our way up to the Deck Two storeroom, where we closed the door and sat down.
"Joe, are you okay?" I asked, but Joe apparently didn't trust himself to speak, because he simply shook his head. Sparrer promptly went and sat right next to him and put his arm around him – he understood, because he'd seen for himself that the arch was the gateway between the two worlds. Billy, on the other hand, didn't know why everyone was looking so serious.
"What's happened?" he asked. "What's the matter with Joe… and Alex?" he added, because he'd realised that Alex had a tear trickling down his cheek. "Alex, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Billy, you know that Alex and Joe come from another world, don't you?" I said, when Alex didn't seem capable of speaking. "Well, the link between their world and this one was in the Great Circle, through one of the arches in the outer ring. You remember that we were looking at it the first time we went to try to find the hole… anyway, that Eagle just destroyed the arch, so there's no way back."
"Oh," said Billy. "But…I thought you were going to stay here anyway, Alex."
"I was… I mean, I am," Alex answered. "But I wanted my family to come here too. I love it here, but… well, you've got a family too, and I don't suppose you'd want to go to another world without them, even if life there was a lot better than it is here, would you?"
Billy shook his head. "Family's important," he said. "I'm sorry, Alex. I'm sure as we'll all try to be like a family for you, and for Joe, too."
"Yes, we will," I said. "But maybe we shouldn't give up on it yet. If we can get the stones put back in the same place, maybe the hole will open again."
"You think you can rebuild Stonehenge and get every stone in precisely the right place?" asked Alex. "Because I should think that if you're even a millimetre out the hole won't be able to reform. This Stonehenge has to be exactly aligned with the one in my world, I'm sure."
"We don't know that," I said, though in fact I thought he was probably right. "But even if you are, I don't believe this can possibly be the only place where it's possible to get from one world to another."
"Know a lot of Stonehenges, do you?" asked Alex, gloomily.
"There are plenty of other ancient monuments around," I said. "Not just in this country, either – hell, if I have to I'll take you to Australia. Maybe Ayers Rock has a crossing point."
"I think you're supposed to call it Uluru now," Alex pointed out. "And, anyway, I bet Australia is the same as America and Greenland, a no-go area for Europeans."
"What's Australia?" asked Wolfie.
"It's a massive island – a continent really – between Asia and Antarctica," I told him. I realised it had never come up in geography lessons – at least, not during either of my spells of education in this world.
"Used to be called New Holland, if that helps," said Alex, who was a lot better at geography than I was.
"I think you mean Janszonia," said Wolfie. "It's named after the first European to visit it. Now it's part of the Japanese Empire."
I suppose I should have known that, but at least it meant that there shouldn't be any problem visiting the place if we had to: we weren't strictly allied with Japan, but since they liked the Russians a lot less than they liked us you could say their position towards us was one of benevolent neutrality. Of course I hoped we wouldn't have to go there: a ten thousand mile journey would be a massive undertaking.
I started to try to think of other ancient monuments, preferably rather closer to home than Australia, or Janszonia, or whatever I was going to call it. How about Ancient Rome, or Greece… or what about Egypt? Come to that, there were plenty of other Stone Age formations about in England, and in Western France, and surely Stonehenge couldn't be the only one where you could cross over, could it?
"If that was Pasha's ship," said Wolfie, bringing back from my reverie, "how could he have found us? He couldn't have followed us back from Norway, not with so much of it being done in the dark, and even if he latched onto us straight away he surely wouldn't have had time to recruit another ship."
"Maybe the Russians have a large base nearer than Murmansk," I suggested. "If so he would have had time to go there, look us up in the Security Service records – he had my name and photos of all of us, remember – and, if I'm in it, find out where I live. So he wouldn't have needed to follow us – he could have headed straight for Culham and just waited for us to get back. And if he knows who I am, you can bet he knows who you are, too. I bet he's kicking himself for letting you slip through his fingers."
"Let's just hope he doesn't find out who Tim is," said Wolfie. "I doubt if the Russians would have his photo, so he's probably safe, but if they do find out they'll probably come back."
That was a worrying thought, and I made a mental note to get a message to Admiral Faulkner, warning his coastal defence ships about disguised Eagles that could be identified by their waist gondolas. Of course, it was possible that not all Eagles had the same gondola configuration…but at least I knew that Pasha's own ship did, so hopefully he wouldn't be able to get back past the patrols so easily.
I realised how urgent it was for us to get all our ships fitted with electricity and radios. Once the whole fleet was equipped with radios we'd have a huge advantage, because we'd be able to co-ordinate our movements and change plans as we went, something that was virtually impossible with only semaphore communications. This would have to be a higher priority even than new armour.
"Are you two okay?" I asked.
Alex gave me a nod, and a moment or two later Joe did too, although he still didn't look too good.
"I'm going to get you home," I told them. "I don't care what it takes, but one way or another it's going to happen. I promise."
I went back to the bridge with Wolfie, and we found that we were more than halfway back to Culham. We still had Rapp to starboard of us, but there were no other ships in view, so it looked as if Pasha really had given up, for the time being at least.
Eventually Culham came into view and my uncle began the landing procedure, which I was delighted to discover was exactly the same as mine, right down to choosing the same two bags to vent on the final approach. Once we were safely down I picked up the radio.
"Excalibur to Rapp, over," I said.
"Rapp, go ahead."
"Thanks for your help. I'd suggest that you turn the radio off once we've finished speaking and take it back with you. If your scientists can discover how it works they might be able to make more of them. Certainly we will be trying to do that, so if they liaise with us we can share our findings. If we can fit all our ships with these… well, you can imagine the benefits. Over."
"We can certainly do this. Thank you. Over."
"Bon voyage," I said, in a feeble French accent. "Excalibur out."
The French ship turned to the south-west and flew away, and we disembarked. I looked up at our hull, where I could see the scorch marks on the armour caused by the Congreve that had got caught in our netting, and I wondered what would have happened if it had struck at a slightly less acute angle. As far as I was concerned, the sooner Tim came up with some better armour, the happier I would be.
Before the ship was towed back to its hanger the meteor material was unloaded. I still didn't think it looked much: to me it seemed that we'd made an extremely long and dangerous journey for the sake of what looked like a pile of earth. But then I knew I was no scientist.
"No, you're not," my uncle agreed when I told him what I was thinking. "But I think we might just make a decent æthership captain out of you. I thought you handled the attack very well."
"If I hadn't, I wouldn't have left you in command. But you were doing exactly what I would have done, and as long as you kept that up I saw no reason to relieve you. I'm impressed, Leo. You made a good job of it."
"I'd have gone on chasing him if you hadn't stopped me, though," I admitted.
"I can understand that, after what happened to you on the ground. But when you've got a bit more experience you'll learn when to cut your losses and stop. One on one the Eagles are stronger than we are. You beat them today by leading them into an ambush and then outnumbering them, but until we get better armour you shouldn't think of taking them on without some sort of an edge. And in cloud you're on your own, because even with your radio you can't co-ordinate an attack if you can't see where you are.
"Of course, it can work for you, too: if you're ever attacked by superior forces and there are clouds close at hand – other than thunder-clouds, obviously - run into them. Once you're hidden you can change course, climb a lot or a little or even drop if the cloud is low enough, and the odds are that the enemy won't be able to find you. I'll arrange some war game training for you with some of the other captains before too long, and that will teach you about tactical flying when you're outnumbered, because you won't always have a couple of French allies in shouting distance. Although if we can manufacture more radios it could make a tremendous difference to the way we fight.
"Anyway, as I said, you did well. Your mother would have been proud of you."
He clapped me on the shoulder, smiled at me and then went off to arrange for the meteor material to be moved to the old stable block, while Wolfie and I headed back to the house. We went straight up to my room, got undressed and took a long bath – together, because it's far nicer sharing a bath with a friend than just taking one on your own. We didn't talk much, but I was glad he was there, because I'd also lost something when the arch was destroyed. Although Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim weren't my real parents, I'd intended going back to see them and to ask them if they wanted to come to live in my world. And even if they had said no to that, I'd hoped I would be able to stay in touch with them. But now that chance was gone.
We got out, put some clean clothes on and went looking for the others, eventually finding them – all four of them – in Joe's room. Alex and Joe both looked a little better.
"You okay?" I asked Joe.
"Pretty much. It's not like I've got cut off in hell, is it? I'm happy here. But I am worried about Simon, what with Carmody being in prison and now me vanished off the face of the earth. I know he's got other friends, but I think we were the ones he spoke to most if he was worrying about something. And it's going to hit my parents, too: I don't know if they entirely believed Alex about you living in another world, but whether it sank in or not, there's going to be nothing they can do to find me. That's going to be really hard for them."
"Same here," said Alex. "It'll be not knowing where I am that will get to mine. If I could just send them a message to say that I'm okay I wouldn't worry, but as it is…"
"Well, like I said on the ship, I'm going to find a way back," I told them. "First we'll try rebuilding Stonehenge, and if that doesn't work we'll visit every prehistoric monument in Britain, and then the world, until we find another place where we can cross over. There simply has to be one somewhere."
Straight after lunch I wrote to Sir Edmund de Breville – as he was the Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Stonehenge was on his patch – explaining what had happened to it and offering to contribute to its reconstruction, provided that it could be done as accurately as possible. Then, not wanting to wait for the normal post, I took it to the stables and asked Mr Francis to choose one of his boys to carry the message direct to Devizes. And that was just about the final part I played in our mission to Norway.
We had a quiet weekend, and then from Monday onwards the six of us boys went back to our normal routine of school and everyday life. Alex and Joe resigned themselves to computer-free learning and began to get used to looking things up in our library instead of online; Sparrer continued with his reading and writing lessons and Billy went back to the village school as before. We didn't see much of Tim, who seemed to be spending almost every waking minute with his team of scientists. They were in the process of moving from the old stable block to a former school in the centre of Abingdon which was adjacent to a large park – large enough for an æthership to be able to land there, anyway. Also based at the school was another team of scientists who were working on the material Alex had brought back from his world. He and I had signed any number of papers for a lawyer that our own solicitor had found to handle the copyright stuff, and once that had been done there was nothing further that we needed to do ourselves.
To be honest I was surprised that things were moving so slowly: I'd thought that generating electricity would be fairly easy, and in fact it is, usually. But I was forgetting that in this world none of the components actually existed: basic materials like copper wire had to be made to order, rather than being available on a shelf in B&Q. In this world there was no such thing as a light bulb, a plug or an electric socket, and things that the writers of the internet articles Alex had copied took for granted were completely unknown here.
Nonetheless, the work was going forward, although I didn't get to see too much of it first-hand. Of course, I wouldn't have understood very much of what I was seeing even if I had visited the labs on a regular basis.
October rolled into November and the fires were lit in the bedrooms. Of course whenever Wolfie and I slept in our third floor HQ we had to light the fire ourselves, since none of the servants were supposed to know about it, but actually doing it ourselves was no real hardship and increased our feeling that this was our own special place. All the same, we had told our friends about it, just in case they ever needed to find us urgently when we weren't in our own rooms, but we still hadn't told them about the secret passages. Not that we'd used them recently: it was getting a bit cold in there now. We could have lit a fire in the secret room, and on our last visit there we did go so far as to leave some coal and kindling there, but we didn't stay long enough on that occasion for it to be worth lighting the fire.
We'd warned Air Admiral Faulkner to be on the lookout for ships with waist gondolas trying to sneak over the border under false colours. There wasn't too much that the coastal defence ships could do about ships crossing the coast at night, but patrols had been stepped up and the word had been spread amongst all the landowners who flew as privateers, so it would have been hard for an enemy ship to escape detection for very long. In any event, we saw nothing of either Pasha's ship or any other, and by the end of November we came to the conclusion that he had given up.
At the beginning of December my uncle suggested that I spend a few days in London, visiting the headquarters of my charity and seeing how the work was coming along. The reports that I'd received from Colonel Edwards had been positive: already some premises had been either purchased or leased, and quite a number of homeless children had been rehoused in them. Sparrer was understandably keen to see what conditions were like there, and so I arranged for the six of us to travel to London on Saturday December 3rd. The weather was still fairly mild – at least, it was still above freezing and there was no sign of snow yet – and so the journey gave us no problem, and we were soon settled back into the house near Berkeley Square. This time Sparrer was offered his own room, but he declined, saying he'd prefer to share with Joe. And on the Monday morning we travelled to an office in Gray's Inn Road which Colonel Edwards had leased to serve as the headquarters for our work.
Now I could see for myself the effects of an entire city that relied on coal for heat: as long as the wind kept blowing it wasn't too bad, but as soon as the wind dropped the smoke began to form a layer of grey haze that gradually dropped to street level, reducing visibility substantially and, I suspected, not doing our lungs a lot of good.
"Just think how much better it'll be if we can set up a proper electric supply system, said Alex. "Electric lights, and better still, electric heating. That should get rid of most of this muck."
"Only if it's no more expensive than coal," I pointed out. "And even then it's likely to be a while before people feel comfortable about having electricity running through their houses. It'll need some decent marketing."
"True. We'll have to find a way to keep the price down. But if we can – kerching!"
"I think we're supposed to be doing this for philanthropic reasons," I said, "not to make piles of dosh. Although if it does make money, well and good – maybe we can use it to provide shelter for all the homeless people in London, not just the kids."
"Maybe you'll end up with a statue in Piccadilly Circus," suggested Joe. "After all, plenty of Victorians got statues for good works, so I don't see why you shouldn't."
I thought about that briefly, but quickly dismissed it as ridiculous.
"No thanks," I said. "I'd look a knob as a statue."
"It'd be cheap, though," said Alex. "They wouldn't need a lot of marble to make a statue of a midget like you."
I gave him the finger but otherwise ignored him. In fact I had grown a little since returning to my own world: even though I was still shorter than Alex, Joe and Wolfie I could at last see that I was getting taller. There was even some activity in the trouser department: a little more hair, some of which could actually be seen from a distance of greater than six inches, and even a little – a very little – more length. I remembered Dr Daruwala telling me that when my growth spurt began I would probably change quite quickly, and I hoped he was right.
Colonel Edwards was obviously expecting us, as he had the books all set out ready for my inspection. Apparently we had already bought two large buildings and leased two others (we didn't yet have the funds to buy them outright) and were thus accommodating more than a hundred and fifty orphans. Persuading the first ones to move in had been difficult, and would have been impossible if I hadn't told them about Annie and her group, but once they had been living in the first home for a while they put the word about, and soon the orphans were coming to us.
Late that afternoon – once the kids were home from school - we visited the first of the homes, and that gave me a chance to talk to Annie in person. I talked to her on my own, with only Sparrer along in case I needed an interpreter, because I didn't want her to be inhibited by the presence of either Colonel Edwards or the staff who ran the home. But it turned out that this was an unnecessary precaution, because she was perfectly happy with life.
"So they're treating you alright?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's good 'ere. Food ain't bad, eever. Course, it ain't as good as wot the Savoy chucked aht, but it's 'ot, which is better. An' they don't try it on wiv us – yer know wot I mean. Once we're in bed they leave us ter sleep. Like I told yer before, that ain't wot 'appens in some places. An' we're goin' ter school, an' all, and they even reckon they can 'elp us get work when we finish. I still don't get why yer done it, but I ain't 'alf glad yer did."
"I think you can thank Ben for that," I said. "He bumped into us at exactly the right moment."
"That's me," said Sparrer. "I got a noo name nah: I'm Ebenezer Sparrer, gent."
"You ain't no gent, yer little sod," said Annie, grinning at him. "An' I ain't sure abaht 'Ebenezer', eever: it sahnds too good fer the likes of us. Still, 'oo knows? Maybe yer'll suit it one day."
"Annie, I'm going to give you my address before we go," I told her. "If anything ever happens here that you're not happy about, to you or any of the other kids, I want to hear about it, all right? Just write a quick line, put it in the envelope I'm going to give you and put it in a post box. It'll already have a stamp on." I hesitated. "Can you write yet?"
"I'm learnin', but it don't matter – I'll get Albie ter do it. 'E can write proper."
"All right. Just make sure you tell me. Is there anything else you think I ought to know about?"
"Well… I 'ave got a suggestion. See, we got most of wot we need 'ere, but… is there any chance of sortin' us out a little bit of dosh? Jus' ter buy sweets an' stuff. 'Cos uvverwise some of 'em are likely ter go dippin' again, or back on the game. It don't 'ave ter be much – a tanner a week would do."
"Yes, all right, I'll see to it. But I don't want anyone here breaking the law, Annie, understand? Especially not thieving. If kids from one of these places get caught stealing, word will go about and people will stop sending us money, and if we're going to get more kids out of the sewers we have to have people contributing. Make sure everyone understands that, please."
"I will," she said. "And fanks again."
She headed for the door and I took a couple of steps to follow her, but Sparrer grabbed my elbow and held me back.
"'Ang on 'ere a minute," he said. "I'll be back in a mo."
He followed Annie out and returned a couple of minutes later with a slightly older boy in tow.
"This is Albie," he told me. "Albie, this is me mate Leo… well, orlright, 'e's the Dook of Culham, but 'e is sort of me mate. 'E's the toff wot put up the readies ter get us aht of Bazalgette's."
So this was Albie the rent-boy, I thought. And probably quite a successful one, too: he was very nice-looking, although as he got closer I could see that he was actually wearing make-up – not much, but he'd certainly done something with his eyelashes, he seemed to be wearing eye-liner and there was definitely a hint of lipstick. He was just a little bit swishy, too, which I found a little off-putting for some reason: considering the relationship I have with Wolfie it shouldn't have bothered me at all, but I'd never had any contact with any sort of effeminacy before. Still, I didn't think that was any reason not to be polite.
"Hello, Albie," I said. "Forgive me for asking, but are you still… you know… selling…"
"You mean, am I on the game? No, not as such… I rather miss it sometimes, but it's not really all that safe. Quite apart from the danger of being robbed – and that has happened to me more than once – it's a bit like playing Russian roulette with your health."
I stared at him. He sounded nothing like Sparrer – in fact he sounded posher than me. Okay, that's not all that difficult, because I still sounded a lot more like a working class kid from Palmer's Green than a member of the aristocracy, but this boy sounded as if he'd been educated at Eton.
"How long have you lived in the sewers, if you don't mind my asking?" I said.
"About two or three years, I suppose. Maybe less – time moves differently underground, you see. Quite often you don't know whether it's day or night, and I haven't owned a watch since I was twelve."
"How old are you now?"
"Fourteen. I'll be fifteen in a couple of weeks."
"And how did you come to find yourself in the sewers?"
"Ah – you're wondering why I don't sound like Sparrer, aren't you?"
"Me name's Ebenezer nah," Sparrer told him. "Mr Ebenezer Sparrer, Esquire."
"Oh, is it? I wonder how that amazing transformation came to pass?"
"It's 'cos of Leo – 'e reckoned as 'ow I oughter 'ave a proper name, not jus' Sparrer. So I chose 'Ebenezer'. But me mates can call me 'Ben'."
"I see. Well, I can talk like 'im if I want, 'cos reely it ain't that 'ard…but I fort if I wuz goin' ter meet a toff… well, I thought you might prefer it if I sounded a little less sewery. Actually I generally speak Sewer except when I'm with a client who wants something a bit more upmarket… when I was with a client, I meant. Because obviously I don't do that any longer, as I explained."
"Quite. So, how did you…?"
"Ah. Well, I was caught at school doing something that nicely brought up boys aren't supposed to do and they were so shocked that I was asked to leave. Well, not so much asked as physically thrown out of the door. Then the headmaster wrote to my father, and he asked me to leave as well, because no son of his was going to behave in such a flagrant, sinful… well, I'm sure you get the idea. Probably the fact that my father is the Bishop of Welwyn didn't help very much, and I suppose it doesn't reflect very well on him if his son is wearing makeup and indulging in sins of the flesh with other boys.
"So I moved to London to seek my fortune, but while I found quite a lot of sex there wasn't any fortune, and I suppose I was lucky that on my third night in London I spotted a couple of street boys disappearing into a manhole. So I followed them and found myself at Annie's place, and I've lived there ever since, using my charms to make a little money for them. But I won't pretend I don't like this place a lot more."
"And how do feel about being back at school?"
"There's rather more freedom when you're in the sewers, but I recognise the need to improve myself, so I'm not really sorry. Of course, where I am now is a little less exclusive than my last school, but maybe that isn't such a bad thing."
"What subjects are you best at?"
"Maths, I suppose. And maybe science."
"And… sorry, Albie, but I have to ask… is there any danger of you getting expelled again for the same reason?"
He looked at me. "Do I have to answer that?" he asked.
"No, but… look, we need to avoid bad publicity for this place if we can, because we can't afford to lose our donors. So can you at least try not to get caught?"
"Well, I didn't want to get caught last time… but I have learned to be more careful since then. In any event, I haven't been at the school long enough yet to get together with anyone. But if I do, I don't know that I can make any promises."
I really wasn't sure how to deal with this. I certainly didn't want to have to send him back to the sewers, but the last thing we needed was a newspaper story linking our charity to corrupt morals, or however the establishment was likely to express it. But before I could say anything Sparrer got in first.
"Why don't we take 'im wiv us?" he suggested. "'E's clever, an' 'e likes science an' stuff, so maybe 'e could 'elp Tim, or sumfink. It would sure as 'ell keep 'im aht of trouble. An' maybe 'e can teach you an' Wolfie some stuff wot yer might find 'andy…"
"Ben, I really don't need a personal sex trainer," I said.
"Ah, so you're of the same persuasion as I am, are you?" asked Albie. "Well, I certainly wouldn't mind passing on my years of experience to you – in fact I'd enjoy every moment of it."
"Like I said, no thanks," I said. "And you don't have to flatter me by pretending I'm good-looking, either."
"Who's pretending? Trust me, teaching you the ins and outs would be no hardship at all!"
"Albie, I'm happily… partnered," I said.
"And your point is…?"
"Shut it, Albie," interrupted Sparrer. "Can't yer see yer talkin' yer way back ter the fuckin' sewers? 'E don't know yer like wot I do, an' yer makin' 'im uncomfortable."
"Sorry," said Albie, contritely (and in a much less flirtatious tone). "I rather tend to lay on the limp-wristery a bit when I meet someone new. You'd be surprised how much you can learn about someone from watching their reaction to meeting a screaming poof."
"And what have you learned about me?"
"Well, Sparrer's right: you're not comfortable with me. But I can't see anything in your eyes to suggest actual dislike, and you seem fairly relaxed talking to me, too, which is rather odd: you're a duke and I'm a queer from the sewers, but nobody hearing us talk would realise that."
"You'd be closer if you said that you're a bishop's son and I'm a working class kid from North London," I said. "I'm not exactly your average member of the upper classes."
"I think I'd worked that out long before I met you – after all, most of the titled folk pretend that we don't exist but, as I understand it, you've put a lot of time and money into trying to help us. And of course if you're prepared to consider someone like Sparrer a friend, you simply have to be strange. Actually, I'd have said you have to be mad…"
"Oi, watch it!" said Sparrer. "Any'ow, you an' me are mates, ain't we? So if yer insultin' Leo, yer insultin' yerself, an' all."
"We all make mistakes. Anyway, Your Grace, I'm sorry for coming on to you just now, and if I can be of any use to you, in any capacity, I'll be happy to oblige."
I thought about it. There was no doubting his intelligence, but I wondered if it would really be a good idea to add him to the household. After all, currently we were three happy couples, and introducing a sexual wild card like Albie into the mix could stir up quite a lot of trouble if he decided he wanted to join in. On the other hand, it would certainly ensure that he didn't bring the charity adverse publicity if I took him down to Culham with us…
"How much do you know about steam engines?" I asked.
"Well, I understand how they work. I don't have any practical experience, but I would imagine I could pick it up reasonably quickly."
"Then I can probably use you. But I need you to be a bit subtle about your personal life, all right? I don't think Culham is quite ready for anything too flamboyant."
"I can do subtle," he said. "I can be quite butch when I try."
"And if you can manage without the make-up, that would help. You don't need it, anyway, because there's nothing wrong with the way you look."
"Don't you think so? I've always thought my eyes are too pale – they look a little washed-out without a touch of liner. And my hair's a bit dull, too: it's neither one thing nor the other."
"I'd say that you've got nice wavy dark blond hair and pale blue eyes, and I'd still say so whether or not you wore mascara and lipstick, because they make no difference. In the world where I was living until August you could have worn quite a bit of make-up and got away with it, because there are Goths and Emos in that world who use make-up even though they're not gay, but here…"
"Hold on," he interrupted me. "Suddenly you've stopped speaking English. I know a Goth is a member of an ancient Germanic tribe, but what's an Emo? And why should wearing make-up have anything to do with whether you're happy or not? And what on Earth do you mean about 'the world where you were living until August'?"
"It's a long story," I said. "I'm sure someone will fill you in over the next few days – if you decide to come with us, of course. You don't have to."
"How could I say no? Of course I'll come. And thank you for asking me."
"Alright, but… alright, just go and get packed."
I still wasn't sure about this, but I was thinking ahead to the time when I would want my own crew to fly Excalibur. Albie was clearly intelligent, and if I started his training now, perhaps he'd make a decent engineer by the time I was ready to fly without my uncle.
While we were waiting for Albie to get his meagre bits and pieces together I found Annie again, apologised for taking Albie and told her that in the event of trouble she should just send me the envelope I handed to her, which I had stamped and addressed to Culham, with nothing inside it. If I got an empty envelope I'd know it meant that she needed to speak to me.
Albie returned carrying a small bag and I took him outside to meet the others, and almost immediately I started thinking I'd made a major mistake here, because he took one look at Alex and went straight into flirt mode.
"Well, hello, Gorgeous!" he said, fluttering his still-mascaraed lashes at him. "I wonder why nobody told me about you?"
"Albie!" I snapped, seeing the look on Billy's face. "If you want to stay here you're going the right way about it."
"What?" he asked, trying to look innocent.
"He's spoken for," I hissed in his ear.
"Oh! Shit, Your Grace, I'm sorry," he said, and he sounded as if he meant it. "I didn't know."
"Well, just rein in your enthusiasm a bit. And don't call me 'Your Grace', either. My name's Leo."
Somehow we got through the rest of the day without incident, and I suspect that at some point Sparrer took Albie aside and explained a few things to him, because after supper he came to my room and gave me a proper apology.
"It's going to take me a little while to sort myself out, I think," he went on. "You see, I've been completely open about the way I am for the past two years. I was thrown out of school and my home for being queer, so I decided that I wasn't going to apologise for it any more. People could accept me as I was or not at all, but I told myself that I wasn't going to pretend to be something I wasn't ever again. And so I actually went to the opposite extreme and started exaggerating the way I was. And it felt really good, and nobody in Bazalgette's cared, because that's the one place that will genuinely take all sorts, as long as they can earn a little money to pay for food.
"But now I need to rein it in again so I don't cause you any problems. I know this isn't the same world as the sewers – I was just a bit slow to adapt. It won't happen again, I promise."
Obviously I sympathised: even though I still wasn't completely sure that I was going to be exclusively gay when I got older, I could understand how hard it could be trying to pretend to be something you're not. Probably Alex and Joe could understand that even more easily than I could, too.
"We have a bit of a rule," I told him. "When we're with other people I try to act like an aristocrat, Billy and Ben – Sparrer – call me 'Your Grace' or 'My Lord' and we all try to behave the way the adults expect us to. But when we're on our own we drop all that: everyone calls me 'Leo' and we all treat Ben and Billy as friends rather than servants. So it could be very helpful if you can act sort of straight and responsible in public, but when it's just us boys I don't mind at all if you drop the pretence and just be yourself. I can guarantee that none of us is going to mind in the slightest. But try not to split people up from their partners, please. If you're looking for a long-term partner of your own, fine – there are plenty of boys of our age on the estate, and I'd be surprised if you can't find some who would be interested. But my friends and I – the ones you met today - are off-limits, because at the moment we're all spoken for. Is that all right?"
He nodded. "Of course," he said, and I wasn't sure if I believed him or not, but for the time being I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Then welcome to the household," I said, and I offered him my hand.
He took it and shook it, and then pulled me into an embrace, and then he kissed me – but it was a very gentle kiss on the cheek, and when he let go of me and stepped back, I could see that he was trying not to cry.
"Thank you," he managed to say. "I won't let you down. I promise."
He seemed totally sincere, and at that moment I came to the conclusion that asking him to join us might not have been a mistake after al.
Over the next two days we visited the remaining Homes and found that they all seemed to be well-run and the kids seemed happy enough. I got Sparrer to talk to a couple of kids at each home on a one-to-one basis, because I was sure that, no matter how reluctant they might be to raise a complaint in front of me or Colonel Edwards, they wouldn't hold back in a private chat with one of their own. And Sparrer reported that so far everything was running smoothly: the kids were getting some schooling, and the older ones had mostly been found some training, or even, in one or two cases, an apprenticeship. I was suitably impressed, and told Colonel Edwards so when we went back to the office for the last time. He thanked me and promised to keep me informed of progress.
At the end of the week we went back to Culham. We found Albie a room on the third floor and, after discussing it with my uncle, we decided that he should attend classes with us in the mornings and help out with the research that Tim was doing in the afternoons. In fact there were only ten more days of school to go before the Christmas holidays, but that was quite enough for Albie to demonstrate that, despite having had no education for more than two years, he was a lot brighter than I was. Not that I minded: as I've observed before, the benefit of being a duke is that if thinking needs to be done you can generally find someone brainy to do it for you. And now I had Tim and Albie, as well as Joe, who had settled into this type of schooling very well and was getting consistently good marks.
And then, finally, the school term ended, and we were looking at two whole weeks off. – and Christmas, of course. I was really looking forward to that: Christmas in Alex's world was fun, but it tended to revolve around watching crap on TV, interspersed with adverts for furniture store sales. Somehow the spirit of Christmas seemed to get overwhelmed in all those exhortations to 'hurry down to XYZ Superstore and get your brand new sofa for only £599.99 – but be quick, the sale must end on January 14th!' Christmas in this world, however, was different: no TV, no January Sales, just family and friends relaxing together, maybe playing games, maybe listening to music – I remembered one year when Lord Brookhampton's daughter had sung for us, beautifully…
Yes, Christmas promised to be good, and 2012 promised to be even better: if everything worked out the way we hoped, we'd be able to develop effective armour for our ætherships, equip them with electricity and radios, and then hopefully we'd be able to turn the tide of the war. At that moment the future looked very rosy indeed...
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead