Excerpt for The Adventures of Viola Stewart #7: The Illusioneer by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


THE ADVENTURES OF VIOLA STEWART #7

THE ILLUSIONEER


By Karen J Carlisle


Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Karen J Carlisle


Smashwords Edition | License Notes.

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All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real places or events or real persons, living or dead, is purely incidental.


Cover Photography and design Copyright Karen J Carlisle 2017

with the exception of Corner Cogs by spiral-0ut.deviantart.com

Internal Artwork Copyright Karen J Carlisle 2014


Thank you for purchasing this e-book.

CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Promise

Chapter 2: Deception

Chapter 3: Reveal

Author Notes

About Karen J Carlisle

Connect with Karen J Carlisle

Other Tiles by Karen J Carlisle

THE ADVENTURES OF VIOLA STEWART #7

THE ILLUSIONEER

Chapter 1: PROMISE


The limelights hissed and flared into life as the audience dribbled into the hall. Boots clacked on the wooden floors. The echoes of voices faded as the hall filled, coalescing into a background murmur.

Viola wove her way through the crowded aisle, around huddled clusters of eager on-lookers jostling for the best seats. She paused, waiting for Henry to catch up - and to avoid catching Lady Calthorpe’s eye. She had been particularly attentive to Viola’s state of affairs since Christmas. Too attentive.

Viola stepped into the shadow of a rotund gentleman, deep in conversation with his friend. She glanced over the man’s shoulder at occupied seats in the front row. Lady Calthorpe would be there - no doubt - keeping watch on the aisle, having secured front row seats for both Viola and Henry next to her and Lord Calthorpe.

Rank had its privilege, and Lady Calthorpe was always offered the prerogative to exercise that privilege. Viola bit her lip. That was unkind; Lady Calthorpe had every right to her privileges. There were few women who would not accept such concessions, nor welcome respect from the male establishment.

Warm fingers wrapped around Viola’s hand. She turned to see Henry’s brilliant blue eyes smiling at her.

“Tell me again, why are we here?” she asked.

“I thought I’d present you with an alternative detectiving challenge. One less perilous than your usual exploits.” He winked at her.

Viola sighed. “You know what I think about hypnotists, Henry. Poking around in someone’s subconscious will only lead to no good.” It was a woolly science at best, outright quackery at worst.

“Then see if you can solve how the trick is done. The Mighty Alessandro is supposed to be the fastest hypnotist in London. His record is twenty subjects at one assembly.” He patted her on the hand. “And it could be fun.”

“Fun?” Viola raised an eyebrow.

Henry nodded in the direction of the front row. “Lady Calthorpe is here.”

Viola turned to face the stage. Lady Calthorpe beamed from under a massive orange bonnet; its feathers jiggled as she waved them forward.

“Doesn’t she know it’s all just an act?”

Henry shook his head. “She’s been talking about it for days. I do hope they ask for volunteers. She would not hesitate to offer up herself as a subject, if given the chance.” His moustache twitched. “Wouldn’t you adore seeing her cluck like a chicken?”

Viola tugged her hand free from his grip. “Henry, don’t be so cruel.” She slapped him on his wrist. “Lady Calthorpe is a very generous woman and is always willing to offer support.” She leaned closer to Henry. “They don’t pick subjects at random; they only use paid volunteers placed amongst the audience. And Lady Calthorpe would never agree to humiliate herself in front of society and friends.”

Henry’s moustache drooped. “You can be a stick-in-the-mud, sometimes.”

“I don’t want to encourage them.”

“Them?”

“Charlatans and fraudsters, like this Alessandro.”

“Perhaps their methods could be useful. There have been some studies in France. A doctor there has postulated its use to manage patients in the asylum.”

A gaggle of socialites squeezed past them. Viola grabbed her skirt and tucked it behind her.

“He also said hypnotism was a manifestation of hysteria,” whispered Viola.

“Ah.” Henry waved on the socialites’ top-hatted companions.

“And I suppose you believe in fairies as well?” asked Viola.

Henry dropped his gaze.

Lady Calthorpe beckoned them closer and patted the seat next to her. Lord Calthorpe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Viola and Henry made their way toward the front seats.

“Do we have to...?”

“No,” replied Henry. “But we should. Lady Calthorpe did invite us.”

Viola examined Lady Calthorpe’s enthusiastic face. Her cheeks were blushing and her eyes sparkled. Viola would never hear the end of it if she absconded. She took a deep breath and edged past a tall gentleman standing at the end of the front row of seats. Henry followed her along the row.

Lady Calthorpe jumped to her feet. “Doctor Stewart, you came! And you brought Doctor Collins. Excellent. Do sit.”

Henry leaned forward and shook Lord Calthorpe’s hand. “Congratulations on your appointment as Commander of Windsor Sky Cannon and Armoury. Her Majesty will be in good hands.”

Viola nodded, settled into the leather chair and straightened her skirts. She glanced in the direction of the stage. Shadows bobbed up into the light as the stage hands skittered around the front of the stage. One remained at the foot of each light fixture.

The stage curtains twitched. The hall lights dimmed. The drone of the crowd hushed. A crack appeared in the centre of the heavy curtains; its corners lifted and peeled apart to reveal a tall, black-clad man, his face hidden in the shadow of his top hat. He extended his hand toward the audience; his cloak hugged his arm, revealing a brilliant ruby-red lining.

Violin music wafted up from the orchestra pit.

The man stepped forward. The gathered curtains dropped behind him with a soft thud. He lifted his chin and smiled. The stage lights brightened, until they glinted off his cravat pin.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” His deep voice rolled over the audience like a wave.

Lady Calthorpe gasped and clutched her purse.

Viola slipped her arm around Henry’s elbow. She’d hate to see Lady Calthorpe hoodwinked into an unfortunate situation.

“I require a volunteer from the audience,” Alessandro continued. “But only those intelligent few, whose minds are open to new possibilities, will be able to attain a true hypnotic state.”

A buzz ran through the crowd. Viola tugged on Henry’s arm. Here we go.

Lady Calthorpe shifted in her seat. Viola’s heart sank. Lady Calthorpe would be disappointed when The Mighty Alessandro was exposed for what he really was.

Alessandro stepped forward, near the edge of the stage and surveyed the willing crowd. His long finger crooked in the direction of the Calthorpes.

“You, sir. You look like a strong-willed gentleman.”

Viola’s gaze followed the direction in which he pointed. Her eye widened. Lord Calthorpe? She clasped Henry’s arm with her free hand. Not a paid volunteer? Something was afoot.

Lord Calthorpe glanced at the row behind him and back to the stage. “Me?” he whispered.

“Yes, you, Herbert.” Lady Calthorpe patted her husband’s hand. “Go on, dear.” The sparkle had faded from her eyes.

“Perhaps he shall choose you next, my dear?”

Lord Calthorpe stood slowly and ascended the steps to the stage.

“Good evening, sir,” said Alessandro.

“Lord Calthorpe,” he corrected.

Alessandro bowed his head and smiled. “Welcome, Your Lordship, to my humble display of enchantment.”

A faint whirring emitted from inside Lord Calthorpe’s glove. He slipped his hand into his pocket and nodded. Viola frowned. His mechanical hand sometimes had a mind of its own, particularly when he was nervous. Alessandro clasped Lord Calthorpe’s free hand in his and whispered in his ear. Lord Calthorpe’s eyes widened. Alessandro released Lord Calthorpe’s hand and circled around him, until his back was to the audience.

“What is he saying?” asked Viola.

Lady Calthorpe reached into her purse, pulled out her spectacles and slipped them on. She peered onto the stage. Viola leaned forward and turned her ear toward the stage, trying to hear the conversation but, even in the hushed hall, she heard nothing.

Lord Calthorpe nodded, removed his now-silent hand from his pocket and snapped to attention. He stared into the audience - motionless. Alessandro waved his hand in front of Lord Calthorpe’s face. He didn’t blink; his eyes remained fixed on an unseen spot before him. Alessandro’s cloak swirled as he motioned to the side of the stage, and turned toward the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let me now demonstrate the power of hypnotism. His Lordship is now in a deep trance.”

Assistants brought in two chairs and positioned them on either side of Lord Calthorpe, their backs facing him. One of the assistants stepped behind him.

“Ladies and gentleman, I assure you there is no risk to His Lordship.” Alessandro nudged Lord Calthorpe’s chest. His rigid body fell backwards.

Lady Calthorpe’s knuckles paled as she gripped her purse tighter.

The assistant caught Lord Calthorpe’s shoulder. The second assistant scooped up his feet. They lifted him and rested his rigid body across the chairs. Alessandro twirled with a flourish and bowed as the assistants returned Lord Calthorpe to his feet. Alessandro placed his hand on Lord Calthorpe’s forehead and snapped it away again. Lord Calthorpe’s shoulders relaxed. His eyelids flickered.

“Welcome back, Your Lordship.”

Viola raised an eyebrow. The audience clapped as he was led to the edge of the stage. Whispers filled the hall. Lord Calthorpe shuffled back to his place and lowered himself onto his seat.

Alessandro flipped his cape back over his shoulder. “I require another volunteer.”

The audience quietened.

Viola leaned closer. “What did he say to you?”

Lord Calthorpe shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Curious.” Henry raised an eyebrow.

“That’s not the word I would use for it,” said Viola.

“It seems we have a sceptic in the audience.” Alessandro smiled. “Please let me persuade you otherwise, dear lady.”

Henry nudged Viola. She nudged him back.

“It’s you, Vi,” said Henry.

Lady Calthorpe sighed and dropped her hands in her lap. “You go, dear. It will be amusing.”

Amusing? A cold shiver flitted over Viola’s body. She shook her head. It wasn’t amusing when her mother had engaged such charlatans. Nor was it amusing when she cried herself to sleep. No good could come of this.

Henry leaned close and whispered in her ear. “Here’s your chance, Vi.”

“But, Henry... ”

“Show him for what he is,” Henry grinned.

Viola rose slowly from her chair and approached the stage steps. She would show him up for the charlatan he was. She wrapped her fingers around the railing; her boot heel thunked on the bottom step. She hesitated. Her mother had frequented spiritualists and mesmerists, bewitched with the idea of finding Anne. It had proved fruitless - at least to her mother; its only bounty was that which lined the swindlers’ pockets. They led her on, each one a fraud. It all led to nothing but disappointment. Her mother had never been the same again.

Viola’s heart thumped. She gripped the railing and strode up the steps. She had no idea how Lord Calthorpe had been hoodwinked into compliance, but she was determined. She would show The Mighty Alessandro for what he was: a fake.

He removed his hat, strode toward her, hand extended; an ornate ring glittered in the light. He grinned. His cape billowed behind him. “Good evening, Miss...?”

“Doctor Stewart,” replied Viola, clasping her hands together.

Alessandro nodded and lowered his hand. Piano keys tinkled. A violin joined in.

“A doctor?” His smile slipped, then returned with a vengeance. “You look nervous, Doctor Stewart.” He laughed. “No need to worry, dear lady. Hypnotism only works on those who want to be hypnotised. Perhaps it’s the thrill of doing something and getting away with it, when you can’t be held responsible for your own actions.”

She glanced back at Lord Calthorpe; he hadn’t moved. She swallowed. Mother had been obsessed. Viola took a deep breath. What had Alessandro said? It only works on those who want to be hypnotised. Well, she did not wish to be. She exhaled slowly, allowing her body to relax, and stepped forward.

“Tell me, Doctor Stewart, what are you doing later this evening? Dinner with friends?”

Viola nodded. She and Henry were meeting Sir Archibald for dinner at The Langham. Light reflected off Alessandro’s cravat pin and danced as he glided around her.

“Tell me, Doctor Stewart, do your hands feel heavy?”

Viola shook her head. He slipped in front of the light. She squinted, struggling to see his face clearly against the blazing limelight. A feathery halo surrounded his head where his hat had been. He stepped closer and stared into her eye.

Mother had been hoodwinked by charlatans.

“Are your eyelids heavy?”

Viola blinked. She glanced into the audience, searching for Henry in the sea of dark shadows, beyond the limelight. Their gentle hiss cushioned his voice. Her cheeks flushed under their heat. She swallowed. Her reply caught in her throat.

“Have you ever been on a holiday at the beach?” he asked. “Was it a happy time?”

Viola nodded.

“Do you remember the sand? Hot. Relaxing.” He stepped closer. “And can you hear the waves? Remember the relaxing sound of water lapping on the pebbles.”

He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. A warmth spread across her body and down her arms. Her shoulders dropped.

“Taste the salt.”

Viola licked her lips.

His voice hummed, mingling with the sound of the lights. Shadows rolled over the audience, crawled up the stage and swallowed the lights.

Mother had never been the same...

***


Dinner had been superb. Viola could still smell the mouth-watering aroma of the roast meats, and taste the sweet pastries. She closed her eye and listened to the rhythm of the Brougham cab’s iron-rimmed wheels as they clattered on the cobblestones: clickety clack, clickety clack. She tapped her toe to the beat. She turned her face toward the window. The cool air was crisp and clear - no fog to bind the city stench to the street.

Viola’s breaths slowed. She felt as though a weight had been lifted from her. Was this how contentment felt?

She opened her eye and drank in Henry’s visage. His suit jacket was unbuttoned. Flashes of purple damask waistcoat winked at her as the carriage jiggled over the uneven streets. A lock of dark hair fell over his forehead. Her heart skipped. Henry stared out the window, seemingly oblivious to her attention.

Viola leaned forward, placed her hand on Henry’s and smiled. He slipped his hand away from hers and leaned back into the leather seat of the carriage.

“Did you mean what you said at dinner?” he asked.

“Hmm...?” Viola leaned back into her seat and frowned. She had little recollection of the dinner conversation; she remembered only that it had been as convivial as the food had been delicious. Perhaps she’d had too much wine? “About what, Henry?”

Deep furrows burrowed into his forehead. “Did you mean it?”

Viola sat bolt upright and stared at him. “Henry, this isn’t like you.” He avoided her gaze. “Why are you angry with me?” she asked.

Henry yanked up the carriage window, with a snap. “Don’t play games, Viola.”

Her heart sank. She’d never seen Henry so furious. She tried to recount the evening but it was a muffled blur.

“Please, Henry. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Henry closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them slowly. He stared in her direction - not at her, but past her. Viola’s chest tightened. What had she done?

“Sir Archibald is a close friend, but...” He buttoned up his jacket. “You could at least have done me the courtesy to have revealed your feelings in private.” Henry lowered his gaze. “To give me time to digest such unexpected revelations.” He clenched his hands.

Viola’s mind raced, trying to recollect the evening’s events: They’d met Lord and Lady Calthorpe at the hall. Lord Calthorpe had been hypnotised, then herself. Then they’d... She searched her memory. They’d had dinner. Yes, that was it. She and Henry had met Sir Archibald for dinner at The Langham, and then...

She licked her lips. They tasted of salt. She remembered water lapping on pebbles. The Mighty Alessandro? What had he said to her? She held her breath. Relax? Yes. Relax and hear my voice. Relax and tell the truth.

“Henry, please, what did I say?” she asked.

Henry’s voice was barely a whisper. “If you truly do not wish to be married to me then—”

“But I do!” Viola slid to the edge of the seat. “I do want to marry you, Henry Collins.”

“That is not what you told Sir Archibald.”

Relax and tell the truth. Viola swallowed. Had the hypnotism worked? She shook her head. A chill trickled along her veins. Impossible!

“It was Alessandro. He—”

“Made you say it?” Henry’s moustache twitched. “It only works on those who want to be hypnotised, Viola.” Henry slouched back into his seat.

“I love you, Henry, and I do want to marry you.”

“Then why the delay?

“I should have spoken of it earlier. Sir Archibald told me—”

Henry’s eyes widened. “Archie knew?” Henry growled.

“He guessed.” Viola edged back into her seat. “He begged me to tell you, but there was never an opportune time.”

“An opportune time?” Henry’s moustache drooped.

“Henry, I do want to marry you.” Viola spoke slowly, contemplating each word before she spoke, “But my heart is not entirely mine to give.”

Henry’s muscles tensed.

“It’s Anne.” Viola gripped the edge of the seat. “It was my fault my sister ran away. It broke our mother’s heart and left a hole in mine. And, until I discover her fate, my heart is not my own to give, and could never be entirely yours either.”

Henry folded his arms and stared out the carriage window.

“Henry?”

He remained silent.

The trickle in Viola’s veins became a torrent. A chilled wave enveloped her body.

The carriage jolted as it rounded the corner into Greater Marylebone Street and shuddered to a halt in front of Viola’s house.

“Are you coming in, Henry?” she asked.

“Not tonight, Viola,” He avoided her gaze.

Viola stepped onto the footpath. The door clicked shut behind her; the carriage clattered on the cobblestones and turned into High Street.

***


Viola trudged along the path toward the Bird Walk. Pebbles crunched underfoot. She paused at the Parrot Enclosure. Sun glinted on the polished metal bars. Birds trilled and whistled and flitted in their cages. Trapped. Unable to fly free. Viola’s chest tightened. She felt trapped, as they were.

A parrot strutted closer along a naked branch, twitched its head and eyed her through the bars. And freedom. She stopped by its cage. It buried its beak into its colourful plumage and fixed an eye on her. She frowned. The poor bird looked so forlorn. Perhaps it was better to not know what lies beyond one’s confines? Perhaps it was best to live in ignorance and not want for more?

Footsteps crunched behind her. Sir Archibald hurried along the path to meet her, nodded in greeting.

“I came as soon as I could.” Sir Archibald surveyed the buildings. An elephant trumpeted in the nearby enclosure. “An interesting choice for a rendezvous.”

“I had to get out and clear my head.” Viola’s heart sank into her stomach. “Henry refuses to see me.” Viola felt the colour drain from her face. “What have I done?”

“You look pale, Viola. You should sit down.” Sir Archibald rested his hand on her elbow.

She shook her head. “What did I say, last night?”

“You mentioned your holiday in Scotland, sea bathing and...” Sir Archibald pushed his spectacles up his nose. “And Mr Chester.”

Why couldn’t she remember? Viola’s head spun. What must Henry think of her? She leaned against the bars of the cage. Was he jealous?

“Nothing happened,” she whispered.

“I’m sure Henry knows that.” Sir Archibald cleared his throat. “But, Viola, you should have told him about Mr Chester, and his proposition, when you returned from Scotland.”

“Why? He doesn’t own me.” She clicked her tongue to get the bird’s attention. The parrot edged closer. “I can speak with whomever I wish.”

“It’s a matter of trust,” said Sir Archibald.

“Yes, but...” Viola twisted the engagement ring on her finger.

“You wanted him to trust you. Well, it works both ways.”

Viola stuck her finger into the cage and beckoned the bird closer.

“You, my dear, are in the enviable position of holding another’s heart in your hands. You own it. But be careful, hearts are fragile.”

Viola grasped the bars of the cage. “What about my heart? My trust?”

“Have you not noticed how hard he is trying to prove he trusts you, Viola? You asked him to leave you to your detectiving. He did so - even when you take unnecessary risks.”

Viola gripped the bars tighter. “I do not—”

The bird squawked and flapped its wings against the wire mesh of its cage. Downy feathers wafted in the air. A sharp pain seared through Viola’s knuckle. She snapped her hand away from the cage and spun on her heel to face Sir Archibald. Blood beaded on her skin.

“Oh, you don’t?” Sir Archibald raised an eyebrow. “You two are more alike than you realise.”

Viola sucked her finger. Sir Archibald smiled and handed her a handkerchief.

“Henry thinks you don’t trust him, Viola.”

“But I do trust him.”

“Don’t tell me. Tell him.” His voice was calm. “He’s shown he trusts you - even though he’s worried you’ll be hurt - because you asked him to. Now you need to do the same.”

“But he won’t talk to me.” She placed her hand on Sir Archibald’s arm.

“His pride is injured, Viola.”

His pride? Viola scoffed. “What about my pride? What about my heart? Is a woman’s heart worth any less than a man’s?”

“Of course not.” Sir Archibald patted her hand. “But it is eminently stronger.”

Viola’s breathing faltered. “Am I too late?” She struggled to breathe. “Does he still love me?”

“Of course he does,” replied Sir Archibald. “He doesn’t have a choice. But he thinks you don’t want him.”

“I do, but...” Viola twisted the engagement ring on her finger. “I... I can’t, not yet. It wouldn’t be fair to him. I can’t give my entire heart until I find...” The words stuck in her throat. Pain radiated through her chest, into her neck and shoulder.

“Your sister?”

Viola nodded.

“He can’t compete with her memory.” Sir Archibald took her arm in his and led her away from the Parrot Enclosure, toward the Elephant House. “Just give Henry time to recover.”

Viola hesitated, forcing Sir Archibald to a halt. She took a deep breath. “What about my recovery?”

“That will be difficult,” replied Sir Archibald, “if you don’t let go of the past, my dear.”

“We’ve had this conversation before,” said Viola.

Sir Archibald nodded. “Yes, we have. And you can’t delay it any longer.”

Footsteps skipped toward them. Two girls with bouncing pigtails giggled as they hurried past Viola and Sir Archibald.

Sir Archibald lowered his voice: “You need to make a decision, my dear: the past or the future.”

Viola scuffed the toe of her boot into the gravel and avoided Sir Archibald’s gaze. He patted her hand and escorted her toward a knot of cavorting children waiting their turn for a ride on the tamed pachyderm.

“You need a holiday,” he said. “A few months to let Henry lick his wounds - and to get some colour back into your cheeks. Perhaps a tour of Europe? See the sights? You could visit the Eiffel Tower.”

“Is it really as monstrous as they say?”

“Why don’t you tell me?” Sir Archibald smiled. “Use the time to do something you love. Have an adventure. I’m sure Europe has many mysteries worthy of Doctor Viola Stewart.”

“Without a chaperone?” Viola gasped sarcastically and giggled. The children’s laughter was contagious. “Lady Calthorpe would be shocked.”

“I’m sure young Polly would love to accompany you.” They strode toward the Elephant House. “She deserves a holiday as well.”

“We could take the Channel Airship Service to Paris...,” said Viola.

“I shall write to my friend, Professor Algernon Woolington. He teaches at the School of Medicine in Paris. His wife is a physicist, studied in Edinburgh. Definitely not conventional. You’ll get along famously.” He paused mid-step and frowned. “But they’re going to Venice for Carnevale.” He grinned. “A party is just what you need.”

Viola eyed Sir Archibald. She was being organised. She wondered if Lady Calthorpe had had a hand in it all. They stopped near the enclosure gates.

“Go. Enjoy yourself,” whispered Sir Archibald, “make your decision, and put Henry out of his misery on your return - one way or the other.”

Viola watched the children as they jostled to be first in line. A top-hatted gentleman waved a ticket in the air. A zookeeper nodded and took the hand of a small boy and led him toward a brightly painted step next to the elephant. They were happy, untouched by the troubles and responsibilities of the world. Carefree. She’d forgotten how that felt. She sighed. Perhaps she could forget her guilt? Perhaps Henry could...

Viola’s pulse raced. “What if Henry still refuses to see me?”

“I’ll take care of Henry,” replied Sir Archibald.

***


Henry stared out of the window of the departure tower. The muted cry of gulls surrounded them. A freshly-painted dirigible bobbed at the end of its tether. Sunlight glinted off a row of portholes lining the edge of the hull. Soot-stained men scuttled around on a platform around the hull of the dirigible, pulled lines taut and secured them to over-sized brass mooring bollards.

A rope unravelled and snapped in the direction of one of the workers.

Polly gasped behind Henry. One of the handles of her large, red carpet bag slipped from her grasp and swung loose in her hand.

Henry clenched his hands and stepped in front of Viola. “Are you sure it’s safe?” he asked.

“They’ve made considerable improvements,” Viola replied, her eyes fixed on the flying machine. “Or so I’m told.”

A stocky gentleman, with prominent muttonchops and expensive top hat, sauntered past them. A burly attendant followed him closely. The gentleman’s ticket dangled from his fingers as he lit his cigar. Its end flared red; the paper ticket fluttered in his hand - too close for comfort - as he paused by the window.

Henry’s muscles tensed. He glanced at the gas-filled dirigible, back at the gentleman, and finally to Viola. It wasn’t safe for her to travel with such a careless fool. Viola fidgeted with her purse, her gaze following a ring of smoke rising around the gentleman’s head.

Henry took her arm. He wanted to implore her not to travel, but it was not his decision. “Viola, I—”

A ticket collector stepped forward, snatched the gentleman’s ticket and pointed to the prominent sign on the wall near the tower entrance. Its red letters demanded:


NO NAKED FLAMES.

NO SPARKS.

NO EMBERS.

By Order of

The Channel Airship Service


He held out his hand, presented a small, octagonal container to the gentleman and flipped open its lid. The gentleman raised an eyebrow, stubbed out his cigar and deposited it in the container. The ticket collector nodded stiffly, snapped the lid closed and marched back to his booth.

Henry felt Viola’s arm muscles relax. He let out a slow breath.

“Her Majesty had good reason to ban airships from our skies, you know, Viola,” he said.

Viola eyed the dirigible. “I know. I was there,” she whispered. “I saw it fall.”

Henry’s moustache drooped. “I didn’t know.” Viola had never spoken of it before: the turning point in The Empire’s laws on mechanical ownership. And she chose to reveal such an incident now, as she was preparing to abandon him for months of adventure in Europe? He felt ill. Had he lost her already? He hugged Viola’s arm. “Are you sure you—?”

“I need to go, Henry.” She smiled, removed his arm from hers and moved closer to the window, never taking her attention from the floating transport, as it bobbed in the sea winds. Polly clutched the carpetbag to her chest, bobbed in Henry’s direction and followed Viola.

Henry’s hand twitched. He wanted to hold her hand, to comfort her. He watched her press up against the window. The floating transport nudged the tower. He clenched his hand. Viola’s eye widened. She seemed so excited, yet the tone in her voice suggested concern. He stretched his fingers and eyed the airship. If she was concerned about it falling to a fiery death, she hid her emotions well. As with so many other things... His heart thumped. He searched her face, looking for any clue to her thoughts.

The shadow of the dirigible glided across her cornea. He watched the gleam in her eye left in its wake. He held his breath, trying to slow his heart beat. He wanted her to stay. He wanted to protect her from danger, from her own curiosity. But then the gleam would fade. She had asked him to allow her time to find the answers she needed. He’d promised. Now it was his turn to trust her.

Cogs groaned. Steam hissed as it escaped from the engines. The walkway rumbled and ratcheted out from the tower, toward the door of the dirigible. The workmen secured it to the hull and waved back to the tower.

Viola turned to face Henry, batted her lashes and smiled. “Time to go.”

The ticket collector took his place as the tower door opened. A chill breeze caught Viola’s hair. Soft tendrils caressed her face.

Henry’s lip flickered, managing a weak smile. If only he knew she would return... He took a deep breath.

He reached for her hand. “Promise me you’ll have a safe journey.” His heart thumped quicker. “And come home.” He squeezed Viola’s hand gently.

Viola gazed into his eyes. “My dear Henry, as if I had a choice?”

Henry kissed her hand. “And try to keep out of trouble.”

Viola smiled and strolled toward the departure door.

***


The private dirigible compartment resembled that of a first-class train. A narrow table of dark, inlaid wood sat between the high-back bench-seats of carved wood and teal velvet upholstery. Plump cushions lined the seats and leaned against the hull. In place of sash windows, three brass-edged portholes - almost two feet in diameter - pierced the hull, providing scenic views of the countryside below.

Wisps of cloud drifted and curled past the portholes. The sky was a brilliant clear blue, no sign of the grey fog that often muddied the London sky. Beads of moisture condensed on the glass. Viola tapped her fingertip on the pane. It was cold. How high were they travelling? She twisted the latch, opened the window a crack and took a deep breath.

The smell was... She sniffed again. There was no smell; no city stench, no lingering smell of rubbish-filled alleyways, nor over-crowded decaying tenements. The only rookeries here would be populated by birds, not people.

A flurry of wind rushed through the opening, bringing with it the rhythmic chug of the steam engines. Polly grinned and leapt up onto the seat under the far porthole. She knelt on a velvet cushion and dangled her feet off the edge of the seat, jiggled her ankles in excitement and stared at the view through the porthole.

Viola grinned. Polly’s enthusiasm reminded her of her own first dirigible encounter, as a child. Father had bought her a flying toy: a steam-powered concoction of lace and ribbons, with a wooden control box. She remembered the trickles of smoke that swirled it as it moved. She could almost hear the thunk it made when it bumped into a lady’s bonnet. She bit her lip, trying not to laugh, and smiled. And remembered the scowl of the man who confiscated it. She caught her breath. The man who’d used it to sabotage...

Viola closed her eye, trying to quell the ghostly screams of those who had perished. Her lungs felt as if they would explode. She’d never forget that day. She squeezed a velvet cushion to her chest. Never.


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