“You did very well, Percy, on that front. And I would appreciate it if you were consistent in this matter,” praised Rue.

Percy looked at her sideways to see if she were humouring him and then subsided onto a nearby deck-chair in a funk.

Quesnel appeared above deck mere moments later. The ubiquitous smudges gave him a rakish look which Rue wished didn’t suit him quite so much. It was horribly annoying of him to look dashing. She ignored his smudgy adorableness. He cocked his head at her engagingly.

With Prim and Percy already close at hand, Rue called the meeting to order. “Let everyone under you know, please, that we will be departing from the tower in exactly one hour. Staff and crew are allowed to explore, but they’d better be back in time. Of course, security measures must be taken to protect the Custard, so half the personnel for each station must remain behind. I don’t care how you make the decision of who’s allowed leave but you had better make it fast. Also, one of our command chain should remained behind.”

Not unexpectedly Percy said, “I’ll stay.”

“Of course you will,” said Quesnel, “but that hardly improves security.” He didn’t await Percy’s rebuttal, instead lifting the speaking tube to engineering. “Aggie? Draw lots for shore leave. Three-quarters of an hour only, so pick a few with pocket watches. What? No, I don’t care if you use it as a reward. Why, has Spoo been acting up again? Well, if you don’t like the chit, reassign her, for goodness’ sake. I’m sure they could use the help on deck. Yes, yes, very good. Of course you have to stay – who else will make certain we take on the right amount of coal and water? Yes, well, that’s the way it is.” He put the tube down. “Sometimes, that woman!”

Rue looked at him in genuine surprise. “Only sometimes?”

Prim bustled off to consult the head steward and cook to determine who might be allowed off-ship and what supplies they required. She returned shortly, having somehow found the time to change into a walking suit of black taffeta with a pattern of embroidered rings in gold and burgundy. She wore a matching black hat perched forward on her head, decorated in gold braid and tufts of burgundy feathers and carried a black parasol.

“Very nice,” Rue said enviously.

“Thank you.” Primrose twirled for full effect. “Queen Mums chose this one as my shore-leave-expedition-and-visiting-over-curry outfit. She has odd notions about Indian foodstuffs, my Mums. I think she was traumatised during her own travels.”

Rue nodded. “Should I change?” Primrose was always wise in the matters of attire.


Primrose gave her a critical once-over. “No, I don’t think it necessary.”

Rue puffed under the praise. She couldn’t help it – Prim was just so elegant, it was nice to garner approval from her. “Shall we, then?”

The ladies linked arms and, without further ado, left the ship. Percy took that as permission to retreat to his library leaving Virgil at the helm. Quesnel, after a moment, strode after Rue and Prim. Rue peeked over her shoulder to see him making hasty repairs to his smudges with a large white handkerchief. She mourned the loss, and then reprimanded herself for it.

The two young ladies made their way along the long spatula handle towards the centre of the docking port. The whole tower was illuminated via a variety of artificial sources, from gas chandeliers and tubes of glowing orange fog to massive brightly coloured paper lanterns. Since they were clearly women of some standing, the dockworkers parted before them by rote. A few snide remarks were muttered as they passed but Rue and Prim stuck their noses in the air and pretended not to hear. Quesnel followed a few steps behind, eyes wary. The workers were mainly intent upon The Spotted Custard, dragging pipes, carts of fuel, and other necessities towards it.

Rue frowned, watching as the supply lines targeted her ship. The Spotted Custard didn’t require all that much. “I haven’t signed off on any of this. Where’s the tower steward?”

Only then did she register the fact that a group of her own staff and crew – including sooties, greasers, firemen, deckhands, decklings, stewards, and scullery maids – trailed in their wake like school children out for a jaunt in the park. It was an odd spectacle and made Prim and Rue, at the head of the procession, feel suddenly conspicuous.

Rue became aware of a new kind of bustling. The workers parted before her to reveal an officious elderly gentlemen wearing full evening attire and a red sash across his breast like a military general. He held a leather ledger and a long double-ended stylus. He was using both, rather indiscriminately and not as designed, on any dockworkers who did not get out of his way quickly. “Bad minion!” he shouted at one boy, snapping the lad’s ear with the stylus.

Behind him stomped two men in uniform guiding between them a steam-powered tea trolley loaded with devices, boxes, aetherographic transmitting slates, and other necessities of bureaucracy. Rue thought it a grave misuse of a perfectly nice tea trolley.

The man with the sash stopped, snapped his heels together, and stood to attention, blocking their path. He looked Rue and Prim up and down and then turned to Quesnel, dismissing the ladies as mere fripperies.

“Your ship, sir?” he asked without introduction. “Travelling gypsy barge? Circus troupe? I don’t have anything in the annals expected for today under entertainment or ladybird.”

Quesnel gave him a funny look. “Her ship, sir,” he said, tilting his head at Rue, emphasising the sir as a marker of the lack of proper conversational approach.

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