Primrose gave a shocked little squeak at that statement.

Rue was privately thrilled. Perhaps he’s decided he’d like to tutor me in romantic encounters after all.

Then he added, spoiling matters, “Just stay behind where it’s safer.”

Rue was moved to reprimand. “I know you are overset, Mr Lefoux, but do try to control yourself.”

Quesnel persisted, “You don’t know what danger you face, how long it will take, or how you will get back out. You are intending to run into monkey-ridden doom with no more support than a werecat made mortal who we don’t know if we can trust and a ruthlessly incompetent academic.”

“Ho there, old boy!” objected Percy.

Miss Sekhmet said, “Ah, family arguments. Makes me miss my old pride.”

Rue and Quesnel said to her at the same time, “We are not related!”

Miss Sekhmet shrugged. “Neither were many in my pride.”

Quesnel was not to be thus distracted. “Chérie, please, don’t go.”

Rue could feel her face getting hot in frustration. Why is he countermanding my decisions in front of the others? She was mortified. Miss Sekhmet would think her a mere child. “This is the best option we have.”


“It is an imbecilic option!” Quesnel’s jaw muscles worked as he clenched his teeth in an effort to keep himself from yelling.

Rue wanted his interest – of course she wanted his interest – but not this overprotective nonsense. She wanted flirtation and desire, not yet another parent. Sekhmet was right – he was acting like family. “What care you? You, yours, and the ship will remain safe.”

Quesnel stood up and came to lean over her. “Now you are being an imbecile.”

Rue didn’t know how to relate to a Quesnel who was over-emotional. She thought for one terrifying moment that he intended to kiss her again, right there on the poop deck in front of all the decklings and a visiting werecat. There seemed an equally good possibility that he might strike her.

He did neither, only saying, “I am concerned about your safety. This is like you tearing after the lioness all over again.”

Rue was stung. “It isn’t that at all. I’m telling you what I’m doing ahead of time. And I’ll be tearing off as the lioness!”

Quesnel slapped his forehead with his hand and began striding about, copious arm gestures displaying his French ancestry. “And it will be your first time in that form. You don’t even know if you’re any good at it. You grew up being a wolf! And that is not even the point, the point is––”

Rue interrupted him, standing up herself. She puffed out her considerable chest and drew herself upright, not as tall as Quesnel but doing her best. “Enough. I am still the captain. You should not contradict me in front of the children.” She gestured to where, a little way away, the decklings had stopped chattering to Spoo and were watching Quesnel’s spectacular display of temper with wide, frightened eyes.

Quesnel stopped pacing, vibrating with anger, and then pulled himself together. “Yes, Lady Captain,” he said coldly, and stormed away belowdecks.

Rue did not stop him.

There was a long silence while Prim and Percy pretended not to have heard anything, and Miss Sekhmet tried not to look curious.

Rue took a deep calming breath. “Primrose, you have command while I am away. Technically, I suppose it ought to be Mr Lefoux but since he is proving a tad unstable, I think you had better see to the necessities. I’ll leave you to tell him so later.” Which would also save Rue from having to call down to the boiler room with the transfer of command and get another earful from Aggie Phinkerlington.

Prim said tentatively, “Might I suggest a gunpowder display sparkle? If you took one with you and trouble arises, you could set it off and summon help? Any local militia would surely respond.”

Rue was not above sensible suggestions. “Excellent notion.”

Prim crinkled her forehead. “I’ll find you one of the smaller ones and tie it about your neck in a reticule. Also, I think you should take one of those long scarves I bought this morning in case you have to change shape in the middle of a forest. Or in case something happens to Miss Sekhmet.”

The werecat looked a little nonplussed. “I don’t know exactly where they are in the forest. We have always discussed things through an intermediary. Territory is territory, after all.”

“Then we have to follow Mrs Featherstonehaugh’s trail.”

The lioness asked, “Do your skin-stalker abilities extend beyond the mere stealing of form? Do you possess enhanced tracking skills as well?”

“Naturally,” lied Rue. This may be her only chance to be a lioness. There was no way she was going to suit up in thick clothing and ride Sekhmet into the forest. It had to be the other way around.

The werecat said, “Very well, then, no time like the present. We are only losing darkness.”

Prim scuttled off to the stores and reappeared with a flint and tinder, one of the sparklers, a reticule that looked like a water lily, and a large orange scarf.

Percy made a sputtering noise about not being ready for a trip, until Virgil appeared at his elbow with a warm jacket, a belt from which dangled various tools in pouches, and a satchel full of books and scrolls. Percy said, “Is the ancient Hindustani language derivation text there?” Virgil nodded. “And the Epic of Ramayana?” Another nod. “And my maps?” More nodding. “Well,” said Percy, in surprise, “perhaps you are good for something.”

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