Alek raised his sword. "On guard, sir!"
Deryn hefted her own weapon, studying Alek's pose. His feet were splayed at right angles, his left arm sticking out behind like the handle of a teacup. His fencing armor made him look like a walking quilt. Even with his sword pointed straight at her, he looked barking silly.
"Do I have to stand like that?" she asked.
"If you want to be a proper fencer, yes."
"A proper idiot, more like," Deryn muttered, wishing again that her first lesson were someplace less public. A dozen crewmen were watching, along with a pair of curious hydrogen sniffers. But Mr. Rigby, the bosun, had forbidden swordplay inside the airship.
She sighed, raised her saber, and tried to imitate Alek's pose.
It was a fine day on the Leviathan's topside, at least. The airship had left the Italian peninsula behind last night, and the flat sea stretched in all directions, the afternoon sun scattering diamonds across its surface. Seagulls wheeled overhead, carried by the cool ocean breeze.
Best of all, there were no officers up here to remind Deryn that she was on duty. Two German ironclad warships were rumored to be skulking nearby, and Deryn was meant to be watching for signals from Midshipman Newkirk, who was dangling from a Huxley ascender two thousand feet above them.
But she wasn't really dawdling. Only two days before, Captain Hobbes had ordered her to keep an eye on Alek, to learn what she could. Surely a secret mission from the captain himself outweighed her normal duties.
Maybe it was daft that the officers still thought of Alek and his men as enemies, but at least it gave Deryn an excuse to spend time with him.
"Do I look like a ninny?" she asked Alek.
"You do indeed, Mr. Sharp."
"Well, you do too, then! Whatever they call ninnies in Clanker-talk."
"The word is ‘Dummkopf'" he said. "But I don't look like one, because my stance isn't dreadful."
He lowered his saber and came closer, adjusting Deryn's limbs as if she were a dummy in a shop window.
"More weight on your back foot," he said, nudging her boots farther apart. "So you can push off when you attack."
Alek was right behind her now, his body pressing close as he adjusted her sword arm. She hadn't realized this fencing business would be so touchy.
He grasped her waist, sending a crackle across her skin.
If Alek moved his hands any higher, he might notice what was hidden beneath her careful tailoring.
"Always keep sideways to your opponent," he said, gently turning her. "That way, your chest presents the smallest possible target."
"Aye, the smallest possible target," Deryn sighed. Her secret was safe, it seemed.
Alek stepped away and resumed his own pose, so that the tips of their swords almost touched. Deryn took a deep breath, ready to fight at last.
But Alek didn't move. Long seconds passed, the airship's new engines thrumming beneath their feet, the clouds slipping slowly past overhead.
"Are we going to fight?" Deryn finally asked. "Or just stare each other to death?"
"Before a fencer crosses swords, he has to learn this basic stance. But don't worry"--Alek smiled cruelly--"we won't be here more than an hour. It's only your first lesson, after all."
"What? A whole barking hour … without moving?" Deryn's muscles were already complaining, and she could see the crewmen stifling their laughter. One of the hydrogen sniffers crept forward to snuffle her boot.
"This is nothing," Alek said. "When I first started training with Count Volger, he wouldn't even let me hold a sword!"
"Well, that sounds like a daft way to teach someone sword fighting."
"Your body has to learn the proper stance. Otherwise you'll fall into bad habits."
Deryn snorted. "You'd think that in a fight not moving might be a bad habit! And if we're just standing here, why are you wearing armor?"
Alek didn't answer, just narrowed his eyes, his saber motionless in the air. Deryn could see her own point wavering. She set her teeth.
Of course, barking Prince Alek would have been taught how to fight in the proper way. From what she could tell, his whole life had been a procession of tutors. Count Volger, his fencing master, and Otto Klopp, his master of mechaniks, might be the only teachers with him now that he was on the run. But back when he'd lived in the Hapsburg family castle, there must have been a dozen more, all of them cramming Alek's attic with yackum: ancient languages, parlor manners, and Clanker superstitions. No wonder he thought that standing about like a pair of coatracks was educational.
But Deryn wasn't about to let some stuck-up prince outlast her.
So she stood there glaring at him, perfectly still. As the minutes stretched out, her body stiffened, her muscles beginning to throb. And it was worse inside her brain, boredom twisting into anger and frustration, the rumble of the airship's Clanker engines turning her head into a beehive.
The trickiest part was holding Alek's stare. His dark green eyes stayed locked on hers, as unwavering as his sword point. Now that she knew Alek's secrets--the murder of his parents, the pain of leaving home behind, the cold weight of his family squabbles starting this awful war--Deryn could see the sadness behind that gaze.
At odd moments she could see tears brightening Alek's eyes, only a fierce, relentless pride holding them back. And sometimes when they competed over stupid things, like who could climb the ratlines fastest, Deryn almost wanted to let him win.
But she could never say these things aloud, not as a boy, and Alek would never meet her eyes like this again, if he ever learned she was a girl.
"Alek …," she began.
"Need a rest?" His smirk wiped her charitable thoughts away.
"Get stuffed," she said. "I was just wondering, what'll you Clankers do when we get to Constantinople?"
The point of Alek's sword wavered for a moment. "Count Volger will think of something. We'll leave the city as soon as possible, I expect. The Germans will never look for me in the wilds of the Ottoman Empire."
Deryn glanced at the empty horizon ahead. The Leviathan might reach Constantinople by dawn tomorrow, and she'd met Alek only six days ago. Would he really be gone so quickly?
"Not that it's so bad here," Alek said. "The war feels farther away than it ever did in Switzerland. But I can't stay up in the air forever."
"No, I reckon you can't," Deryn said, focusing her gaze on their sword points. The captain might not know who Alek's father had been, but it was obvious the boy was Austrian. It was only a matter of time before Austria-Hungary was officially at war with Britain, and then the captain would never let the Clankers leave.
It hardly seemed fair, thinking of Alek as an enemy after he'd saved the airship--two times now. Once from an icy death, by giving them food, and the second time from the Germans, by handing over the engines that had allowed them all to escape.
The Germans were still hunting Alek, trying to finish the job they'd started on his parents. Someone had to be on his side.…
And, as Deryn had gradually admitted to herself these last few days, she didn't mind if that someone wound up being her.
A fluttering in the sky caught her attention, and Deryn let her aching sword arm drop.
"Hah!" Alek said. "Had enough?"
"It's Newkirk," she said, trying to work out the boy's frantic signals.
The semaphore flags whipped through the letters once more, and slowly the message formed in her brain.
"Two sets of smokestacks, forty miles away," she said, reaching for her command whistle. "It's the German ironclads!"
She found herself smiling a little as she blew--Constantinople might have to wait a squick.
The alarm howl spread swiftly, passing from one hydrogen sniffer to the next. Soon the whole airship rang with the beasties' cries.
Crewmen crowded the spine, setting up air guns and taking feed bags to the flÉchette bats. Sniffers scampered across the ratlines, checking for leaks in the Leviathan's skin.
Deryn and Alek cranked the Huxley's winch, drawing Newkirk down closer to the ship.
"We'll leave him at a thousand feet," Deryn said, watching the altitude markings on the rope. "The lucky sod. You can see the whole battle from up there!"
"But it won't be much of a battle, will it?" Alek asked. "What can an airship do to a pair of ironclads?"
"My guess is, we'll stay absolutely still for an hour. Just so we don't fall into any bad habits."
Alek rolled his eyes. "I'm serious, Dylan. The Leviathan has no heavy guns. How do we fight them?"
"A big hydrogen breather can do plenty. We've got a few aerial bombs left, and flÉchette bats …" Deryn's words faded. "Did you just say ‘we'?"
"You just said, ‘How do we fight them?' Like you were one of us!"
"I suppose I might have." Alek looked down at his boots. "My men and I are serving on this ship, after all, even if you are a bunch of godless Darwinists."
Deryn smiled again as she secured the Huxley's cable. "I'll make sure to mention that to the captain, next time he asks if you're a Clanker spy."
"How kind of you," Alek said, then raised his eyes to meet hers. "But that's a good point--will the officers trust us in battle?"
"Why wouldn't they? You saved the ship--gave us engines from your Stormwalker!"
"Yes, but if I hadn't been so generous, we'd still be stuck on that glacier with you. Or in a German prison, more likely. It wasn't exactly out of friendship."
Deryn frowned. Maybe things were a squick more complicated now, what with a battle coming up. Alek's men and the Leviathan's crew had become allies almost by accident, and only a few days ago.
"You only promised to help us get to the Ottoman Empire, I suppose," she said softly. "Not to fight other Clankers."
Alek nodded. "That's what your officers will be thinking."
"Aye, but what are you thinking?"
"We'll follow orders." He pointed toward the bow. "See that? Klopp and Hoffman are already at work."
It was true. The engine pods on either side of the great beastie's head were roaring louder, sending two thick columns of exhaust into the air. But to see the Clanker engines on a Darwinist airship was just another reminder of the strange alliance the Leviathan had entered into. Compared to the tiny British-made engines the ship was designed to carry, they sounded and smoked like freight trains.
"Maybe this is a chance to prove yourself," Deryn said. "You should go lend your men a hand. We'll need good speed to catch those ironclads by nightfall." She clapped him on the shoulder. "But don't get yourself killed."
"I'll try not to." Alek smiled and gave her a salute. "Good luck, Mr. Sharp."
He turned and ran forward along the spine.
Watching him go, Deryn wondered what officers down on the bridge were thinking. Here was the Leviathan, entering battle with new and barely tested engines, run by men who should by all rights be fighting on the other side.
But the captain didn't have much choice, did he? He could either trust the Clankers or drift helplessly in the breeze. And Alek and his men had to join the fight or they'd lose their only allies. Nobody seemed to have much choice, come to think of it.
Deryn sighed, wondering how this war had got so muddled.
© 2010 Scott Westerfeld