Thus unchaperoned, The Spotted Custard farted again and floated sedately upward.

Rue did not see, hidden under the trees on one side of the clearing, a tall couple. The woman wore no gloves and held the man’s massive hand in one of hers – fingers interlaced, skin touching skin. Lord Maccon had once been a strong enough werewolf to stand under direct sun, but he was getting weaker, and his wife’s touch was now vital during daylight.

He still looked as big and as strong as he had when Rue was a child, but he slept each night touching Lady Maccon, mortal, shaved each morning, and had aged ten years to Rue’s twenty as a result. His dark brown hair was salted with grey but it was worth it. His wife’s touch was the only medicine that staved off the Alpha’s curse of age-born madness. As far as Conall Maccon was concerned, ageing slowly was a worthwhile price to pay.

Alexia leaned her dark head on her husband’s shoulder and said, “Good enough now, my love? She’s safely away and on her own.”

“Indeed,” Conall grudgingly agreed, nestling his chin into his wife’s curls. Alexia had forgotten to wear her hat. “But safe?” He whispered the query into that glossy hair, still as thick and dark as when they had first met. He’d sat one evening upon a hedgehog and never forgotten – the hair, the magnificent figure, or the hedgehog.

Alexia squeezed his hand. “She’ll survive and thrive in India. It will be good for her to be away from all of this. All of us.”

“Yes, but will India survive her?” the werewolf wondered legitimately.

Alexia chose to tackle his underlying concern and not his sarcasm. “She has resources and friends. That’s the best one can ask for in life. And I gave her a parasol.”

“Oh, indeed, was it the parasol?”

“No, simply a parasol. She’s not ready for the parasol… yet. I’m taking this journey as a test of worthiness.”

“You think she will be ready when she returns?” Conall drew back to look down into her face.


Alexia’s brown eyes were thoughtful. “I think this will temper her. Travel is very broadening for the mind, don’t you find? Our daughter is a sharp edge but of the kind that could grow dull, stuck here in London.”

“I hate it when you are reasonable, wife.”

“I know, but you really ought to be accustomed to it by now.”

“Never. It’s one of your many charms.” He bent and kissed her deeply, a safe thing to do, hidden from prying eyes by trees and an early hour.

Alexia blushed like a schoolgirl under her tan skin but leaned eagerly into his kiss. “Ridiculous man.” She pulled away. “Now. Don’t you think it’s time we considered your retirement?”

Conall glowered. His amber eyes, so like his daughter’s, went hard. “Are you saying we should send a summons?”

“To Scotland?” His wife was thoughtful. “Perhaps.”

“India. Kingair is billeted in India at the moment.”

Alexia turned all nose, like a hound scenting a fox. “You knew that when you let her go, didn’t you? Of course you did.”

“Why else would I have permitted it?”

Alexia was relieved but unwilling to praise his fatherly interference. She returned to the subject at hand, “Do you think Biffy is ready?”

“Oh, he’s ready. It’s only, I’m not certain that I’m ready to let go.”

Alexia cupped her husband’s cheek with her free hand. “You let go of our daughter today, next to that…” she trailed off.

“A pack is no small thing, my love. Even balanced against a daughter. And I still have a little time left, I think.”

Alexia had confidence in her adored, if frustrating, husband. “Then you must use it to reconcile yourself to our future.”

“I hate it when you’re right.”

Alexia grinned. “Almost as much as when I’m reasonable?”

He growled at her. “Possibly more.”

The moment they hit the aetherosphere, Rue fell instantly and entirely in love with her new ship. They crossed into the blurry nothingness of aether, losing sight of both the world below and the sky above. It was a great scientific mystery that the aetherosphere was invisible, except when one was inside it. And inside was a treacherous space to be. However, Rue’s ship took to the currents with such grace it was almost as though they were still floating in normal air.

Percy was equally charmed. “This is what she was made for. Goodness, feel her go.” His self-importance gave way before a misspent youth tagging after Rue and Prim as the girls took Dandelion Fluff Upon a Spoon out for yet another illegal jaunt. Percy might be a bluestocking but he did love to float. It was one of the reasons he took Rue’s job offer.

The Custard slid smoothly through the aether where any other ship would have shuddered and jolted. Percy examined the Mandenall Pudding Probe’s dial. It was set for the Gibraltar Loop but the first hop into a current was always the hardest. The moment they entered the aetherosphere they began drifting with the local idles southward.

“Take us up, please,” said Rue.

Percy pressed down hard on the puffer button to put a little more rise into the balloon, and they glided up and began drifting east.

“And again, please,” ordered his captain. Rue was enjoying command. Especially over Percy. “This time, bring her nose around to the south.”

Percy puffed the Custard up once more and engaged the propeller to maximum. It farted loudly and they started a slow spin. At that moment, the Mandenall emitted a squirt of viscous milky liquid, not unlike rice pudding. This was how it had earned it its name. This was also the only sign they would get that they were directly below the correct current.

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