Spoo popped her cap back on and scampered off.

Rue left the ship reluctantly, already planning which gadgets, tea, weapons, china, and shoes she would be packing for India. She’d have to see if Uncle Rabiffano could take the air sickness long enough to give her tips on decoration and furnishings. She emerged to find Dama sitting on the footboard of his coach, chatting amicably with his drones. He looked up as Rue came trotting over, wafting Winkle in her wake.

“Dama, she’s glorious.”

“Delighted you approve, Puggle. But what happened to your face and your lovely achromatic dress?”

“Problem with one of the boilers.”

“We thought we heard a shriek and a bang.”

“And you trusted me to sort it and didn’t send a drone to investigate? Dama, how lovely of you.”

“My dearest Puggle, my whole life with you has been a series of explosive events. Why should this be any different?”

“I shall take that as a compliment,” said Rue happily. “This one was not my fault – I feel compelled to defend my honour. And anyway, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed, said the horrible Phinkerlington creature.”

“Ah, you met Aggie, did you, Puggle my pet? Not to worry, she grows on you.”

“Like mould?”


“And like mould she can be very useful.”

“And tasty on cheese?” Rue was thinking of teatime.

“I wouldn’t go that far, my little petunia blossom.” Dama hopped lightly down and came to stand next to Rue, looking back over to the ship. “She still needs a few light touches by way of adornment.”

Rue was proprietorially offended on the ship’s behalf. “She’s perfect.”

“Now, my little Puggle-muffin, no insult intended. I merely wished to point out that her balloon needs to be oiled and painted. You’ll have to select the colour pallet. Make me proud, please, darling dewdrop? Also you need to name her.”

Rue was nothing if not decisive. “Can I have it painted red with black spots, like a great big ladybird?”

Dama let out an uncharacteristic bark of uncontrolled laughter. “I should have guessed. And the name?”

Rue considered and then, after taking into account the pale golden nature of the amazing Chinese wood and the generally warm spirit of the craft said, “The Spotted Custard.”

Dama suppressed a slight snort. “Are you certain, my brilliant child?”

Rue’s chin went up. “She’ll be spotted and custard is my favourite food.”

Dama didn’t question her further. “One of the drones will see her registered.” He reached into his emerald-green waistcoat pocket and pulled out a list. “Now, you require additional crew. I’ve already selected deckhands and three stewards, but you’ll need more domestic staff and, of course, officers. Here’s my list of recommendations.” He handed the bit of paper to her, almost nervously.

Rue would never have thought Dama capable of apprehension. Then she looked down the list. It was not very long and one name instantly jumped out at her. “Oh, bosh! Percy? Must I?”

“Now, Puggle, he’s the best man for the job of navigator in all of London. Who’s not already committed to queen, country, or contract. Do be reasonable. He’s smart and capable and used to being bossed around by a woman.”

“But he’s a pollock. And he whines. And he’s easily distracted.”

“He knows all about the history of every country in the British Empire. He can find out about almost anything else.”

Rue capitulated with a grumbled, “Prim won’t like it.”

“He speaks six languages,” weaselled her adopted father.

“And ignores instructions in all of them!”

Dama pursed his lips and then faced the lion’s wrath. “You haven’t finished the list.”

Rue perused further. Then she encountered the name Dama was really nervous about. “Absolutely not.”

“Now, now, Puggle, darling––”

“Dama! No.”

“Just think about it, my dear. He is absolutely perfect for chief engineer.”

“She’ll never let him go.”

“Which she?”

“Either she.”

“I think you’ll find he’s got a mind of his own these days.”

“Oh, you think so, do you? That’s a manifold problem. I don’t like men who won’t listen to my mind over theirs.”

“He designed most of the boilers and steam engine controls on The Spotted Custard.”

Rue shook the piece of paper at Dama in violent exasperation. “Of course he did. I should have known from the kettles.”

“And he might have mentioned recently to Winkle how eager he is to leave London for a while.”

“Got some poor young tradesman’s daughter pregnant, did he?”

Dama was truly appalled at such crassness. “Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama that is enough.”

Rue admitted she might have gone a little far. “I suppose you did just give me charge of the best ship ever made. I could think about it.”

“Perhaps even meet him?”

Rue sighed. “I do love you, Dama, but sometimes you can be the most vexing of all my parents.”

Dama accepted victory and shifted to look fondly over at his cadre of drones. “Come along, darlings, we must take the Puggle to the train station. She must visit Woolsey Hive.”

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