Alek sighed, wondering if he'd ever understand Dylan's peculiar way of speaking. But at least no one was shooting yet.
Maybe the boy wasn't such a fool after all.
The captain met them in a salon that took up the whole width of the airship. Now that oil lamps were lit and the gondola was almost level, the airship seemed less bizarre, even luxurious. The ceiling arches reminded Alek of vines curving overhead, and though his chair felt solid, it seemed to weigh nothing. Did the Darwinists fabricate trees as well as animals? The table was decorated with a pattern that seemed woven into the grain of the wood itself.
Volger's eyes were wide as he scanned the room. Alek realized that the two of them were probably the first Austrians ever aboard one of the big hydrogen breathers.
Seven people sat around the table: Volger and Alek, Dr. Barlow and a bowler-hatted male scientist, the captain, and two of his officers.
"I hope you won't mind coffee," the captain said as they were served. "It's a bit early for brandy, and cigars are strictly forbidden."
"And there is a lady present," Dr. Barlow said with a smile.
"Well, of course," the captain muttered, clearing his throat and giving her a tiny bow. The two didn't seem entirely friendly with each other.
"Coffee is more than welcome," Alek said. "I haven't slept much."
"It has been a long night for us all," the captain agreed.
Alek made a show of translating what had been said so far. Volger smiled and nodded as he listened, as if hearing everything for the first time.
Then he asked, "Do you think any of them speak our language?"
When Alek glanced around the table, none of the Darwinists volunteered an answer. But Alek murmured, "The lady has excellent Latin. Perhaps she knows other languages as well?"
Volger gave a slight nod, his gaze resting for a moment on Dr. Barlow's bowler hat. "Then let us be careful."
Alek nodded, and turned back to the Leviathan's captain.
"Well, then," the captain said. "Let me start by apologizing for any rough treatment. In wartime we have to suspect the worst of an intruder."
"No harm done," Alek said, reflecting on how apologies always came easier when you had a cannon pointed at someone.
"But I must admit, we're still confused about who you are." The captain cleared his throat. "That is an Austrian Stormwalker, is it not?"
"And carrying the Hapsburg seal," Dr. Barlow said.
As Alek translated for Volger, he remembered Klopp's plans to disguise the palace guard walker. But somehow a fresh coat of paint had never seemed terribly important while they'd been running for their lives.
"Explain that we're political opponents of the emperor," Volger said. "And that he's seized the war as an opportunity to get rid of his enemies. We aren't deserters. We had no choice but to run."
As Alek translated this into English, he marveled at Volger's quick thinking. The explanation was not only believable; it bordered on the truth.
"But who exactly are you?" Dr. Barlow asked when he was done. "Household retainers? Or are you Hapsburgs yourselves?"
Alek paused for a moment, wondering what the Darwinists would do if he told them he was the grand-nephew of the emperor. Take him back to England as a war prize? Publish the story of his escape as propaganda?
He turned to Volger. "What should we tell them, Count?"
"It might be wise," the man said in a hard whisper, "not to address me by rank."
Alek froze for a moment, glancing at Dr. Barlow. Either she hadn't heard the word "count" or she was too clever to show it. Or maybe she didn't speak German after all.
"Tell them we prefer not to discuss such a thing with foreigners," Volger continued. "Suffice it to say that we are neutral in this war. We certainly have no grudge against a shipwrecked crew."
Alek translated this carefully, thankful he'd been practicing his English with Dylan.
"Most mysterious," Dr. Barlow said.
"But certainly hopeful." The male scientist leaned forward. "Perhaps you can help us. What we need is quite simple: food. Lots of it."
"Just food?" Alek frowned.
"This is hardly some dead Clanker machine," the man said pompously, as if repeating a catechism. "The ship can heal herself, if we can just feed her enough."
Alek turned to Volger and shrugged. "He says all they need is food."
"Well, then. We'll give it to them."
"We will?" Alek asked. "But just yesterday you - "
"Your foolishness has given me a chance to reconsider," Volger said. "As we planned our attack this morning, they sent carrier birds aloft. Calling for rescue, no doubt. And worse, the Germans might be looking for them."
"So the sooner they leave this valley, the better," Alek said, feeling his humiliation fade a bit. If his reckless trip across the snow had forced Volger to help the airship's crew, perhaps he'd done the right thing after all.
"Besides," Volger said, "they'll want us to trade something for you, my annoying, useless young friend."
Alek glared at Volger, who smiled placidly back at him. He was only playing down Alek's importance, of course, in case Dr. Barlow could understand them. But Volger hardly had to relish it so much.
Alek gathered himself, then said in English, "We're happy to give you food. What kind does your ship need?"
"Raw meat and fruit are best," Dr. Barlow said. "Anything a bird would eat. Sugar and honey are useful for our bees, and we can dissolve starches, like flour, in the gastric channel."
"But how much?" he asked.
"Six or seven tons in all."
Alek raised an eyebrow, trying to remember what an English ton was. Almost a thousand kilograms? God's wounds, this was a hungry beast.
"I'm afraid we have no ... honey. But lots of sugar, meat, and flour. Will dried fruit do?"
Dr. Barlow nodded. "Our bats are very happy with dried fruit."
Bats? Alek shuddered a bit as he translated for Volger.
"Your little expedition is getting expensive, Alek," the wildcount said. "But we can spare it. And in return we'll take you away from here - now."
Alek faced the captain. "We'll trade you the food for my freedom."
The man frowned. "We'll be happy to send you home, of course. Once we have the food in hand."
"I'm afraid you'll have to release me now." Alek glanced at Volger. "My family will stand for nothing less."
Dr. Barlow was smiling. "Their concern for you is touching, Alek. But there is one problem. Once you're no longer our guest, that walker could easily destroy us."
"I suppose so," Alek said. He turned to Volger and said in German, "They want to keep me as insurance."
"Offer them a trade. Me for you."
"I can't let you do that, Volger. This is all my fault!"
"It would be difficult to argue with that," Volger said. "But we'll need two skilled pilots to move that much food."
Alek frowned. He suspected that the real reason was to keep him safe for the throne of Austria-Hungary. But it was true - old Klopp couldn't drive a laden Stormwalker back and forth in this cold, not alone. And, of course, here was the real reason Volger was pretending not to speak English. He wanted to spy on the unsuspecting Darwinists while he was their hostage.
"All right, then. I'll tell them we want a swap."
Volger held up a hand. "Perhaps we should drive a harder bargain. If we hold one of them hostage, they might be more inclined to return me in working order."
Alek smiled. He'd been ordered around by the Darwinists all night. It was time to return the favor.
"Volger will stay in my place," he said. "And we shall require a ... guest in return. Perhaps you, Captain?"
"I should think not," one of the officers said. "The captain is needed here."
"As are all my officers and crew," the captain said. "This is a wounded ship. I'm afraid we don't have anyone to spare."
Alek folded his arms. "Then I'm afraid we have no food to spare."
The table was silent for a moment, the Darwinists glaring at Alek while Count Volger looked on placidly, pretending not to understand.
"Well, the answer is obvious," Dr. Barlow finally said. "I shall go."
"What?" the captain sputtered. "Don't be absurd!"
"I am rarely absurd, Captain," Dr. Barlow said archly, then began to count off points on her finger. "Firstly, I shall hardly be making any repairs. Secondly, I know what food the Leviathan's creatures can and cannot eat."
"As do I!" the other scientist said.
"But you are the ship's surgeon," Dr. Barlow said. "Whereas I am hopeless as a nurse. Clearly I am the right choice."
As the officers began to argue with her, Alek leaned closer to Volger.
"She'll get her way," he said. "For some reason she's quite important here."
"That makes her an ideal hostage, I suppose."
"Not really," Alek muttered. Neither Klopp nor the other men spoke any English. He'd have to deal with Dr. Barlow on his own.
"Do you think she'll be trouble?" Volger asked.
"I suppose I can handle one woman," Alek said, sighing. "As long as she doesn't bring that wretched beast of hers."
Tazza seemed to enjoy riding in the Stormwalker.
The beast scrambled about the floor of the pilot's cabin, pawing for spent cartridges that had rolled into crevices and corners. Soon bored with that, it sniffed the emergency ration locker, then watched Alek's feet on the pedals and growled. It was quite annoying.
"This machine has a peculiar stride," Dr. Barlow said from the commander's chair. Her gaze stayed fixed on Alek's hands as he drove, which was unsettling. "Is it based on any particular animal?"
"I've no idea," Alek said, wishing that Klopp could answer her questions. He'd retreated down to the gunners' station, horrified by the presence of a woman in his Stormwalker. Or maybe he was afraid of Tazza.
"It walks a bit like a bird," Dr. Barlow said.
"Aye, a great iron rooster!" Dylan added.
Alek sighed, wishing he'd negotiated a more equal exchange of hostages. It seemed unfair that Dr. Barlow should bring an entourage with her - a beast, an assistant, and a trunk full of luggage. Back at the airship Volger didn't even have a change of socks.
Alek shut out their questions, focusing on the controls. The Stormwalker was negotiating the rocky slope leading up to the castle, and he didn't want to stumble in front of the Darwinists.
Dr. Barlow leaned forward as the crumbling walls came into view. "How rustic."
"It is meant to be hidden," Alek mumbled.
"Disrepair as camouflage? Ingenious."
Alek slowed the walker as the gate drew nearer, but grazed the iron hinges with its right shoulder. He winced as a metal screech rang through the cabin, Tazza matching the noise with a piercing whine.
"Bit tight, isn't it?" Dylan remarked. "If you're going to stroll about in this monstrosity, you should get a bigger door!"
Alek squeezed the saunters tighter as he brought the walker to a halt, but he managed to hold his tongue.
"There must be quite a lot of you," Dr. Barlow exclaimed.
"Just five," Alek said, opening the stable doors wider. "But we're well provisioned." He didn't mention that this was only one of many storerooms.
"How convenient." Dr. Barlow unhooked Tazza's leash from his collar, and the beast trotted deeper into the gloom, sniffing every box and barrel along the way. "But you couldn't have brought all this in your machine."
"We didn't," Alek said simply. "It was waiting here, just in case."
The woman tutted sadly. "Long-standing family squabbles can be most tiresome."
Alek didn't answer, gritting his teeth. Every word out of his mouth only betrayed more information.
He wondered if the Darwinists had already guessed who he was. The assassination was still front-page news, and the rift between his father and the emperor was no secret. Luckily, the Austrian papers had never revealed that Alek was missing. The government seemed to want his disappearance kept quiet, at least until it could be made permanent.
Dylan appeared at the stable door and gave a low whistle.
"Is this your pantry?" The boy laughed. "It's a wonder you're not fatter."
"Let us not question good fortune, Mr. Sharp," Dr. Barlow said, as if she hadn't been full of questions herself a moment ago. She handed Dylan a notepad and safety pen, then began to move among the crates and sacks, reading the labels and calling out her results to be written down.
After a moment of watching her effortlessly translate the labels, Alek cleared his throat. "Your German is quite good, Dr. Barlow."
"Why, thank you."
"I'm surprised you didn't have a chat with Volger," he said.
She turned to him and smiled innocently. "German is such an important language in the sciences, so I've learned to read it. But conversation is another matter."
Alek wondered if that were true, or whether she'd understood them perfectly. "Well, I'm glad you think our science is worth reading."
She shrugged. "We borrow as much from your engineering as you do from ours."
"Us, borrow from Darwinists?" Alek snorted. "How absurd."
"Aye, it's true," Dylan spoke up from across the room. "Mr. Rigby says you Clankers wouldn't have invented walking machines without our example to follow."
"Of course we would have!" Alek said, though the connection had never occurred to him. How else would a war machine get around? On treads, like an old-fashioned farm tractor?
What a preposterous idea.
As the two Darwinists returned to their work, Alek's fuming turned to annoyance with himself. If he hadn't let slip his discovery that Dr. Barlow understood German, perhaps Volger could have concocted some way to mislead her.
But then he sighed, depressed at how often his thoughts turned to deception now. After all, Dr. Barlow had only done what Volger was doing with the Darwinists, pretending not to speak their language to spy on them.
It was odd, really, how alike those two were.
Alek shuddered at the thought, then went to help Klopp and the others prepare the Stormwalker. The sooner the Darwinists were gone, the sooner all this skullduggery could end.
"Can your contraption really pull all that?" Dylan asked.
Alek looked at the sledge, which was piled high with barrels, crates, and sacks - eight thousand kilograms in all. Plus the weight of Tazza, who sat atop the mountain of food, catching the sun's last rays. There was no chance of starting before dark, but they'd be ready at dawn tomorrow.
"Master Klopp says it should slide easily on the snow. The trick is not breaking the chains."
"Well, it's not a bad job," Dylan said. The boy was sketching the Stormwalker and its load, capturing the walker's lines with swift, sure strokes. "I'll have to admit you Clankers are clever-boots with machines."
"Thank you," Alek said, though making the sledge had been simple enough. They'd taken one door off the castle gate and laid it flat, adding two iron bars for runners. The tricky part was securing the sledge to the Stormwalker. At the moment Klopp was halfway up a ladder, reinforcing the walker's anchor ring with the sputtering flame of a welding torch.
"But isn't it a bother?" Dylan asked. "Making a machine to do something that animals are better at?"
"Better?" Alek said. "I doubt one of your fabricated creatures could pull this load."
"I reckon an elephantine could drag that, easy." Dylan pointed up at Klopp. "And you wouldn't have to oil its gears every few minutes."
"Master Klopp's only being careful," Alek said. "Metal can be brittle in this cold."
"That's exactly what I mean. Mammothines love the cold!"
Alek recalled seeing photos of a mammothine - a huge, shaggy sort of Siberian elephant, the first extinct creature that the Darwinists had brought back. "But don't they fall over and die in the heat?"
"That's a Clanker lie!" Dylan exclaimed, then shrugged. "They're fine, unless you take them south of Glasgow."
Alek laughed, though he was never quite sure when Dylan was joking. The boy had sharp wits, despite his rough manner of talking. He'd been very clever about tying cargo onto the sledge, and had hit it off with Bauer and Hoffman in an easy way that Alek had never managed - without speaking a word of German.
Alek might have trained in combat and tactics his whole life, but Dylan was a real soldier. He swore with an effortless extravagance, and during lunch had thrown a knife three meters and hit an apple square in its heart. He was skinnier than most boys his age, but could work alongside men and be treated as their equal. Even his lingering black eye from the crash had a piratical swagger to it.
In a way Dylan was the sort of boy Alek would have wanted to be, if he hadn't been born the son of an archduke.
"Well, don't worry," Alek said, clapping a hand on Dylan's shoulder. "The Stormwalker can carry all the food your airbeast needs. Though I can't see how one creature could eat all this."
"Don't be daft. The Leviathan isn't one creature," Dylan said. "It's a whole tangle of beasties - what they call an ecosystem."
Alek nodded slowly. "Did I hear Dr. Barlow say something about bats?"
"Aye, the fl¨¦chette bats. You should see those wee beasties at work."
"Fl¨¦chette? Like 'dart' in French?"
"That sounds right," Dylan said. "The bats gobble up these metal spikes, then release them over the enemy."
"They eat spikes," Alek said slowly. "And then ... release them?"
Dylan stifled a laugh. "Aye, in the usual way."
Alek blinked. The boy couldn't possibly be saying what Alek thought he was. Perhaps it was another of his peculiar jokes.
"Well, I'm glad we're at peace, so your bats won't be, um ... releasing their fl¨¦chettes on us."
Dylan nodded, a serious look on his face. "I'm glad too, Alek. Everyone says that Clankers only care about their machines. But you're not like that."
"Well, of course not."
"It was dead brave, coming across that ice alone."
Alek cleared his throat. "Anyone would have done the same."
"That's a load of blether. You got in trouble for helping us, didn't you?"
"I can't argue with that."
Dylan held out his hand. "Well, it was barking decent of you."
"Thank you, sir." Alek took the boy's hand and shook. "And it was decent of you to save me from a fiery death."
"That doesn't count," Dylan said. "It would've been my fiery death as well!"
Alek laughed. "I appreciate it nonetheless - as long as you promise not to hold me at knifepoint again."
"I promise," Dylan said, but his face stayed serious. "It must have been rough, having to run away from home."
"It was," Alek said, then looked at the boy suspiciously. "Did Dr. Barlow ask you to find out who I am?"
"The boffin doesn't need my help." Dylan snorted. "She already reckons you must be quite important."
"Because of this castle? Because they came for me in a walker?"
Dylan shook his head. "Because they traded a barking count for you."
Alek swore softly. Dr. Barlow had understood perfectly when he'd called Volger by his title. And that wasn't the only foolish thing he'd let slip.
"Can I trust you, Dylan? To keep a secret."
The boy looked at him askance. "Not if it's a danger to the ship."
"Of course not. It's just that ... Do you mind not telling Dr. Barlow what I said about being an orphan?" Alek paused, wondering if simply asking this would give him away. "If she knows that, she'll figure out who I am. And then there might be trouble between us again."
Dylan stared at Alek a moment, then nodded solemnly. "I can keep that secret. Your family's no business of ours."