by David Clarke
In fact we were not awakened by an army of singing servants the following morning: instead there was a timid knock on the door, followed by Wolfie rolling into the room and suggesting that, since breakfast would be served in ten minutes, perhaps we ought to think about getting up. Then he withdrew in order to let us get dressed in peace.
We found Lord Folliot, Air Admiral Faulkner and Mr Hall already eating: breakfast was on a self-service basis, as it had been at Squire Cheevers's house, and here there was an even larger selection, including kidneys and kippers. The idea of fish for breakfast didn't really appeal to me, and I can't say that I'd ever thought of eating kidneys on toast either, but I stocked up on everything else and took a seat at the table.
"I'd like you to come to our meeting this morning," my uncle told me. "I know you can't remember anything yet, but at least you'll be able to get an idea of what is happening in Europe. Wolfie, if you could whisper anything Leo doesn't understand in his ear as we go along, that would be helpful. Alex, I don't think that we need to inflict our politics on you, so you may spend the morning as you will. Perhaps you would like to explore the grounds. Luncheon will be at one o'clock, so make sure you're back before then."
I wasn't all that enthusiastic about a morning of politics either, but I supposed this came with the territory, and probably I'd have been trained from an early age in contributing to political discussions. If only I'd been able to remember… still, hopefully Wolfie would nudge me if I looked like falling asleep.
We were just finishing off the toast when Allchorn appeared.
"Our visitors have arrived," he announced. "I have sent the ground crew out."
"Thank you, Allchorn," said Lord Folliot. "I expect you two would like to see this."
He led us outside the house, and I saw a huge airship coming in to land a couple of hundred metres away in the Long Meadow. The only airship I had seen before was an advertising blimp over London, but this was something completely different: it must have been at least a hundred and fifty metres long and thirty-five metres tall. There was a dark line running along the length of the hull about halfway up, and when I borrowed my uncle's telescope I saw that this was a sort of gallery – presumably this could be used by crewmen to shoot at enemy ships.
The tail arrangement was much larger than on the pictures I had seen of the old airships of the Twenties and Thirties, with the two horizontal fins being a bit bigger than the two vertical ones. The bottom fin was cut short, and as the ship came in to land I could see that if it hadn't been shortened it would have hit the ground.
There were two gondolas on the underside of the ship and two smaller ones halfway up the sides just below the gallery, and on top of the ship was something that resembled a gun turret on a modern naval vessel, though this one was quite small.
The whole thing was painted white except for a pale blue circle painted over the nose. This was decorated with yellow dots, which when viewed through the telescope turned out to be a pattern of birds and bees. That almost made me laugh aloud: I wondered if half the crew would turn out to be female – this was a French ship, after all…
But when I asked my uncle why the ship was painted with the birds and the bees, he explained that the birds were eagles, and that bees and eagles together were a symbol of the French Empire.
"Not all of their ships carry them," he went on. "Just the ones named after the earliest of Napoleon the First's marshals. Look a little further back and you'll see which one this is."
So I turned the telescope back to the ship and saw, just behind the nose, a normal French tricolour, and underneath it the name Jean-Baptiste Bessières.
"There you are," said my uncle. "One of the first Napoleon's original marshals. Now we probably ought to go down there and meet them."
By now the nose of the ship had been tethered to the large mast in the centre of the Long Meadow and the ground crew were tying down the other mooring ropes, and by the time we reached the ship – and it looked even bigger close to – the passengers had emerged from the front gondola. I noticed that the ship appeared to be covered in metal, and that there was a network of posts about a meter high all around the hull. These supported what looked like chain link fencing that completely surrounded the hull except on the underside and along the gallery. I guessed that this was an additional defence against rockets.
My uncle did the introductions, and when he introduced me as the duke there were some surprised reactions from the senior French officers, who must therefore have known our family history. We headed back to the house with our guests in tow.
"You might as well escape while the going's good," I suggested quietly to Alex. "You're lucky – I'm probably going to disgrace the family by dropping off while the French are rambling on about la gloire, or whatever they've come to talk about. I'll see you at lunch if I don't die of boredom first."
"Are you sure you'll be okay?"
"No, but there's nothing you can do. Go and enjoy the fresh air."
So he slipped quietly away while I went unenthusiastically to the conference room with my uncle, Wolfie, Air Admiral Faulkner and the two French officers.
"So how did it go?" Alex asked me at lunch.
"Not as bad as I'd expected – in fact it was quite useful. I'll give you the short version after we've eaten. I've got the afternoon off, and Wolfie suggests we could go down to the river and get our boat out, and that seems like a good idea. That'll give us plenty of time to talk. So what did you do this morning?"
"Not much. I went for a walk round the garden, got stuck in the maze for almost an hour, and when I finally managed to get out I went and had another look at the airship. I couldn't get too close because there were guards all around it, but it's big. Do you think the one in your dream was like that?"
"I don't know. I'll ask about it later on."
After lunch Alex, Wolfie and I set out to walk down to the river, but Wolfie said that we needed to go via the stables. I didn't understand why, but I kept my mouth shut. I hoped he wasn't going to suggest that we should ride down to the river, because I had no memory of ever having been on a horse in my life (even though I probably had) and I was sure that Alex had never been near one, so I thought the chances of us both getting as far as the river without falling off were minimal. But instead Wolfie wheeled his way into the courtyard and called out for someone called Mr Francis, at which a man emerged from one of the stalls.
"What can I do for you, Master Wolfgang?" he asked.
"Can we borrow one of your boys? We are going to take the boat out."
Out of another stall came a boy who looked about our age, or maybe a year or so younger. He was skinny and untidy-looking – he had straw in his blond hair, for a start, though maybe that was hard to avoid if you were working in a stables all day long.
"You're in luck," Mr Francis told him. "Master Wolfgang and his friends need a stoker, so you won't need to muck out the east boxes after all. And mind you behave yourself – this one is the duke, and he pays all our wages!"
He turned to me. "I understand that you can't remember anything that happened before we lost you," he said. "Well, I hope you recover soon. It'll be good to have the rightful master back."
I mumbled something that I hoped was appropriate – words like 'master' sounded a bit odd when applied to myself.
Mr Francis headed back for his box. The boy Rodgers gave a clumsy bow and looked at me nervously.
"I do not think you have crewed for me before, have you?" asked Wolfie, and the boy shook his head.
"No, my Lord," he said. "But I know how to operate a firebox and boiler. Mr Francis teaches all of us how to do that."
"Good. Then we can leave you to deal with the boiler. You know where the boathouse is? No? Well, just follow the path from the bottom corner of the Long Meadow and it will take you right there. Here is the key. It is the smaller boat – just run on ahead and get the box lit. You will find some lucifers in the cupboard beside the firebox."
The boy scampered away and we followed at a more leisurely pace. We stopped at the top of the meadow to watch Bessières take off, and it looked beautiful as it climbed into the sky. I could see two more airships circling above it, which I assumed were waiting to escort it back across the Channel, and indeed in due course they formed up one on each side of it and they flew off – surprisingly quickly: I'd always thought that airships were slow and cumbersome – towards the south.
"So what were you and those French types talking about this morning?" Alex asked.
"Ah. Well, first of all, it's the Russians we're fighting, so you were right: that eagle is the symbol of the Tsar. There's still a tsar here, France is an empire ruled by Napoleon's descendants, and Germany doesn't exist. There is a confederation of smaller states and five kingdoms making up what we call Germany – the most important one is Prussia, which Wolfie might be king of one day. But right now the whole of Germany is occupied by the Tsar. The French army is too strong for him to be able to cross the Rhine, and the British navy – our surface navy – is too strong for him to risk a seaborne invasion. But he has a powerful air force, and that's where both we and the French are at risk. The French ships are good, but the Russians are better because they have discovered some sort of very light but extremely strong alloy to armour their ships with.
"Obviously the problem with airships is that they need to be as light as possible, and once you start putting armour all over them it gets harder and harder to make them fast and manoeuvrable., and if your armour is too thick it won't get off the ground at all. So most allied ships only have minimal armour. That makes us, at least in theory, slightly faster than the Eagles, but we're vulnerable to their rockets, because obviously if your ship uses hydrogen for lift… well, you get the picture. We try to limit the risk by using different gas sections, with sections that use steam between the hydrogen cells, but that reduces our lifting power.
"The other problem is that our government doesn't have the money to support a large air fleet as well as the surface one, and so our air navy is quite limited. They got around the problem by licensing members of the aristocracy, or anyone else who can afford it, to build and fly their own ships, and that's what our family has done. We operate as privateers, but we don't each do our own thing: instead we co-operate with our navy and, more often, the French navy. If we happen to intercept Russian trade ships we're at liberty to help ourselves to their cargo and any other valuables, but that's merely in theory, because for the last five years we've been too busy trying to keep the Eagles out of our airspace to try to make any money out of it.
"This morning was one of the regular meetings we have with the French, and Air Admiral Faulkner was really only there as an observer, because the British air force doesn't operate outside British airspace, whereas we and the other privateers often do.
"The most important thing is that the French think they've cracked the problem of the Russian armour: their scientists have been working for some time on the armour taken from a shot-down Eagle, but they were getting nowhere because there's an element in the alloy that they couldn't identify. But now they know why: one of their spies has found out that the unknown element comes from meteors. Apparently a lot of them have been striking in Siberia, and the Russians have been extracting their mystery element from them. So all we have to do if find a meteor and we'll be able to analyse the element for ourselves, and maybe then we'll be able to match the Eagles' armour."
"Oh, right," said Alex. "So we just go and stand on Salisbury Plain and wait for a meteor to land on us, then?"
"That's pretty much what I said. But it seems that these things strike the Earth a lot more often than I thought. The only problem is that they tend to land inside or close to the Arctic Circle."
"Last time I looked, that was a very long way north of even the Shetlands."
"True. But there's always Greenland. We'd be on slightly rocky ground legally if we went after one there, because strictly Greenland is a protected territory, which means that nobody is supposed to go there: it's meant to be a place where its own native people can live in peace. But there aren't many of them, and if we were to send an expedition there we could probably avoid too much interaction with the natives. Of course when I say 'We' I don't mean us personally: it would mean a land expedition, and that would probably be undertaken by the French government. But we might be asked to provide air cover to protect their ships on the way there.
"Anyway, Sir Neil is going to ensure that our astronomers track any meteor entering the atmosphere from now on. At least it gives us some sort of hope of an improvement in the odds in future."
By now we were in the wood, which was nice, because it was quite a hot day and here under the trees we had some shade. We had to stop at one point to wind up Wolfie's chair, though it didn't seem to need it too often, so perhaps I shouldn't have been quite so dismissive of clockwork after all. I suppose that if you don't have petrol engines or electricity you learn to optimise whatever technology you do have.
The path led straight to a large boathouse which held two vessels. I supposed that the larger one had been owned by my father, which probably made it mine now, but the smaller one was still plenty big enough for us. It was around ten metres long and actually looked fairly conventional, with only the funnel towards the stern to suggest that this wasn't an ordinary motor vessel.
"Who's Lady Renée Ocuto?" I asked, reading the name around the stern. A glance at the larger vessel revealed the name Lady Caroline, and that was obviously my mother, but who was Lady Renée? 'Ocuto' sounded vaguely Italian, or Spanish, or maybe Portuguese, but I had no memory of anyone like that.
"Do you not remember?" asked Wolfie. "When your parents first gave her to you we spent ages trying to decide what to call her. At first we were thinking of Lord Abingdon, which was your title before you became the Duke, but that seemed too boring. And ships – except for warships - are not supposed to have male names, either.
"Then we thought it would be fun to make up a name using the letters from your own name. We started with 'Duke of Culham', but we could do no better than Lame Duck, and that did not use all the letters. And so we tried... what do you think?"
I looked at Lady Renée Ocuto and juggled letters, but Alex got there first.
"It's an anagram of 'Leo de Courtenay', isn't it?" he said.
"It is," Wolfie confirmed. "We argued for a while about the last name: at first we were going to choose 'Couto', but in the end we thought that was too close to 'Courtenay'. So your boat has a female name, but really it is named after you."
"How appropriate," said Alex, grinning at me.
I ignored him and walked onto the landing-stage, wondering if Lame Duck might be more appropriate for a boy who finds he's a duke but doesn't remember how to behave like one.
There was a ramp that had obviously been built specially for Wolfie because it ended flush with the deck, so he was able to roll straight up it without having to worry about steps. There was an open sun deck and a full cabin deck below, the rear third or so being an engine-room. Here we found the stable boy Rodgers with a shovel in his hand, though he wasn't actually shovelling when we entered the room.
"Steam's building, Your Grace," he said to me. "Another twenty minutes or so, I should say, and we'll be ready to move."
"Thank you, Rodgers," I said. "But please don't call me 'your grace' – I know I'm supposed to be the duke, but I have no memories of it, so being treated like one makes me feel weird. Did anyone warn you about my amnesia?"
"Your what, Your… I mean, my Lord?"
"Amnesia. It means I can't remember anything about when I lived here before."
"Oh. Well, yes, my Lord: Mr Francis told us all that you're back with us but that you've lost your memory. But he said as how we have to treat you exactly as we used to after your father died, God rest him, because eventually you'll remember again, and then we'll be in trouble if we show disrespect."
"Oh, did he?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"And what do you call Wolfie?"
"Who, my Lord?"
"The Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth."
"Oh! Well, the adults used to call him Master Wolfgang, my Lord, but now as he's getting older Mr Francis wasn't sure what we should call him. I'm afraid as I don't know how to address a German lord, my Lord."
"Alright, that's enough! When anyone else is around I suppose you'll have to stick to the proper titles – call Wolfie 'Excellency' or something – but just for today, while it's just the four of us, I want you to drop all the titles completely, okay? My name is Leo, and the Margrave is Wolfie, and that's Alex. What's your first name?"
"Billy, my Lord."
"No, Billy, not 'my Lord', okay? Just call me Leo."
The boy looked thoroughly uncomfortable. "But, my Lord, that wouldn't be right!" he protested. "I know my place, and the likes of me can't go about calling the masters by their given names! It's just not… proper!"
But Wolfie interrupted me. "I am sorry, Leo, but he is right," he said. "Perhaps in the world you have come from this is not so, but here there is a structure for society, and it works best if we all stick to our assigned places in it."
"Well, that's easy for you to say," I argued. "You're right at the top of the pile. Of course it's easy to want to keep things as they are when you have everything you could ever ask for, but it's not so easy when you're at the bottom of the heap."
"That is unfair," said Wolfie. "My status is not so perfect: my parents are dead and I have no country. And if you think it is easy to rule, then truly you have forgotten everything you have been taught. On your decision will hang many lives, the lives of those who trust you and look to you for protection. In five years, perhaps Billy will serve on your ship, and he will live or die according to the choices you make. His life is far simpler than ours, and many, many times I have wished that I was only a stable boy myself."
"Yes, but… hell, Wolfie, I didn't mean to say that you've had it easy. After all, my parents are dead too, so I know how that feels – and at least you can remember yours. But it just seems wrong to me that the difference between us – you and me – and him is so great. Tell me, Billy, what did you have for breakfast this morning?"
"Porridge, my Lord," he said. "And today there was some left-over bacon, too. Cook makes fine porridge, and there is usually enough for seconds."
"And where do you live?"
"In the stables with the other lads, my… Sir."
"Ah. Are you an orphan, then?"
"No – my ma works in the kitchen, and my father worked in the gardens, before he went for a sailor at Easter. But it's easier for ma and me to sleep near our work, so she has a room in the house and I sleep with the other lads. Of course, I see her every day, and when my dad comes home perhaps we'll be able to move into one of the cottages again."
"And – please answer this honestly, Billy – are you content with your life?"
"Well, of course, Sir. I have a bed and I'm well-fed, and Mr Francis is a fair master. I've no reason to be unhappy."
"And what do you want to do when you are older?"
"I hardly know, Sir. I've not thought about it – after all, I'm only thirteen. I'd be happy to continue where I am, but obviously if Your Grace needs me in some other job I would be happy to do whatever you ask of me."
"As long as it doesn't include calling me 'Leo', eh? But suppose you could choose. What would you most like to do?"
"Well… it would be presumptuous to say, my Lord…"
"Go on, Billy, be presumptuous. Consider that an order, if you like."
"Well… maybe one day… I'd like to join the crew of Excalibur, Sir."
"What's Excalibur?" I asked.
"It is Uncle Gil's ship – æthership, I mean," explained Wolfie.
"Ah. So you'd like to fly, Billy?"
"Then if I become her captain one day I shall arrange it. What job could you do on an airship, though? There aren't any horses on board."
"I could be a stoker," he said, opening the firebox and adding a shovel of coal from the hopper to his right. "I already know how to tend a firebox."
I hadn't realised that the airships were steam-powered, but now that I thought about it I supposed they had to be, since there were no petrol engines or electricity here. Somehow a clockwork airship seemed even less likely than a steam-driven one.
Billy checked a gauge above the firebox.
"Another ten minutes, my Lord," he said.
At that point I was ready to give up: apparently I was going to have to get used to people addressing me as 'your grace' and 'my lord' all the time, whether I liked it or not. But I was forgetting that I had a very useful ally.
"Could you teach me how to do that?" Alex asked Billy. "I don't know how long I'm going to be here, but it would be good if I can learn to do something useful, and since steam is the number one source of energy round here, learning how to look after a boiler has to be a good thing to know."
"But… you can't do manual work!" protested Billy.
"Yes, I can. I'm not an aristo, Billy – I'm working class, same as you. I come from a back street in North London, and when I leave school I'll probably end up in a manual job of some sort. My father's a builder. So perhaps while the Margrave and the Duke go and sit in the cabin you could show me how to tend a firebox properly."
At the same time he waved us away. I thought he had a far better chance of persuading Billy to stop grovelling than I did, so I helped Wolfie through into the main cabin – he'd had to leave his chair on deck, of course – and we sat down, out of sight of the firebox but still in earshot, because I had deliberately left the door between us open.
"So, is it just a question of shovelling in a load of coal now and again?" asked Alex.
"No, you can't just shovel it in any old how. The aim is to keep the box at the best temperature. See that gauge? The needle needs to be inside that small green arc. That heats the water as efficiently as possible, otherwise you're just wasting coal. Now, when the needle on this other gauge reaches that red line we'll have enough steam to go. Once we're running it only needs more coal now and again, so it's not too difficult a job – at least, not on a boat this size. The big navy boats have a whole line of furnaces, though, and my dad says as how it gets proper hot in their engine room."
"Is your dad a stoker, then?"
"No, he's a gunner's mate, but he's been down in the engine room. He says at least you don't get cold down there, not even in winter, but it's a bad place to be if the ship is hit. It takes a while to get up onto the deck, and if the ship sinks quickly… so if I ever join the navy I'd sooner have a deck job. Of course, I'd sooner fly… do you think His Grace meant it about getting me a job on Excalibur when he becomes captain?"
"Leo never breaks his word," said Alex. "I'd trust him with my life."
"I'd love to fly," said Billy, dreamily. "To see the Earth spread out underneath you – that must be the best thing ever. Anyway, time for some more coal – the needle's on the edge of the arc, see? Open the door and then watch how I do it, and then next time you can have a go."
There were some noises indicating the transfer of coal, and then the firebox door clanged shut again.
"So how come you're with the duke if you're just working class?" asked Billy. "If you don't mind me asking, of course."
"Not at all. See, after the crash four years ago Leo got a bang on the head and he somehow stumbled through a hole between worlds – we still don't know how it happened, but we're going to try to find out – and he ended up in mine. And he couldn't remember anything at all, so he had no idea he was a duke and nobody else knew either. So they put him in an orphanage, and then later he got adopted by this couple who live near me in London. He started going to my school, which is where we met, and we became friends, and we've been friends for the past three years.
"Then I got into trouble and wanted to get out of London for a bit, and he said he didn't want me to be on my own, and so he came with me. We came here - well, to Wiltshire – because he wanted to try to find out where he came from, and I suppose that we fell through the same hole that he did four years ago. So here we are, only he still can't remember anything about this world at all, which is why he isn't behaving very dukily, if that's a word."
"I don't think it is… but I suppose I can understand why it feels strange to him. If someone suddenly told me as I was a duke I wouldn't have any idea of what to do."
"Exactly. Everyone says he'll get his memory back, and when he does he probably won't need me any more, but until then I'm going to go on being his friend, even if people like me aren't really supposed to be friends with people like him."
That was more than enough for me. I got up and went back into the engine-room.
"I'm never going to stop needing you," I told him. "For a start, if I go mad with power and start acting really stupidly I'm counting on you to hit me over the head and stop me."
"It'll be a pleasure!" said Alex, grinning.
"But you see what my problem is, Billy," I went on. "If people all started calling you 'My Lord' and stuff like that you'd feel a bit strange too, wouldn't you?"
"Well, yes, but they won't because I'm not an aristocrat. You are – it's just that you can't remember about it yet."
"I know, and when I do remember I don't think it'll be a problem at all. But until I remember I'm going to need some help. I've got my uncle and Wolfie to tell me what other members of the ruling class expect from me, but I really need someone from the other side to tell me what the working class expect from me. Alex can't do it because he doesn't come from this world… but you could. So will you help me? If I start doing something that would upset the people who work for me, will you tell me?"
"Well... it isn't for the likes of me to tell you what to do," he replied, still looking uncomfortable.
I thought for a moment. "Suppose I was blind and I asked you to guide me along a path," I said. "You'd do that, wouldn't you?"
"Well… probably you'd have a servant to do that… but if there was nobody else, of course I would."
"And if Wolfie's chair broke down you'd help him too, wouldn't you?"
"Well, this is just like that. I'm sort of blind about how this world works. I'm going to be cured, but until I am I need help, and you can definitely help me. You won't be telling me what to do, just warning me quietly if I look like doing something the workers won't like. And because we're the same age people will understand if I recruit you temporarily to my personal staff – officially you'll be my stoker or runner or whatever else we need, but really you'd be my adviser. Could you do that?"
"Well, yes, my Lord, of course. I'll do whatever you tell me to."
"But you're not happy about it? Be honest!"
"Well… actually I think it would be really interesting, but I'm only a stable boy and I wouldn't know how to behave in front of a lot of important folk."
"I won't ask you to do that. As far as possible the only 'important folk' you'll be with will be me and Wolfie."
"And I'll be there too," put in Alex, "so you won't be the only normal person there."
"Then I'll do my best, my Lord."
"Thank you. But… if you're going to be with us a lot, please will you try not to call me anything nobby? I know it's not proper for you to call me Leo, but it'll make me feel much better if you can."
"I tell you what," said Alex. "Every time you hear me call him 'Your dukiness' or whatever, you can do it too. Fair?"
"Just when we're on our own," I pressed. "In public you can bow and scrape all you want, but when it's just us, please don't. It makes me feel weird."
"Well… all right, then, my… I mean… Leo," he said, with an effort.
"Great! So – are we ready to go?"
He looked at the gauge. "Yes, I think so, my…ahem," he said. "Alex, do you want to put another shovel of coal in?"
Alex took the shovel, opened the door, collected some coal from the hopper and flung it into the firebox, and Billy burst out laughing.
"You're too strong!" he said, when he recovered. "That's gone all the way to the back of the box, look! Do it again, and try to get the coal to land in a proper layer."
So Alex tried again.
"That's a bit better," said Billy. "Now if you'd like to release the mooring lines, my… gosh, this is difficult… Leo, we can get under way."
"Do not forget to open the boathouse door!" came Wolfie's voice from the cabin. "Help me up on deck and I will show you."
So we all went up on deck and Wolfie showed me the handle that raised the boathouse door, and while Alex undid the mooring lines and pulled up the ramp I opened the door. There was a step by the door, and by waiting on it I was able to jump aboard as the boat passed me.
Wolfie had taken the wheel, and as we emerged from the boathouse he turned left, taking us downstream. I went and joined him in the wheelhouse, and Alex, after watching the shore slip slowly by for a couple of minutes, went back below to join Billy in the engine room.
After we had been going for about fifteen minutes we came to a fork in the river, and Wolfie took the narrower left fork.
"Where does the other arm go?" I asked.
"Into Abingdon. But this is our own private cut – it is still on our estate, and other shipping does not use it. And that is useful, because just down here is the place where we used to go swimming… see that large tree on the left? That is where we used to tie up."
He angled the boat into the bank and set the telegraph to idle, briefly setting it to reverse as we drew level with the tree. I jumped ashore, and Alex came up on deck and threw me the mooring lines, which I made fast to the tree. Wolfie called down to Billy, asking him to close his dampers and bank up, because we were going to be here for a while.
"Do you remember anything?" Wolfie asked me.
I looked at the big tree, but nothing stirred. "Sorry," I said.
"Oh, well… it is a nice warm day, so let us go for a swim anyway."
"Ah. But… I didn't bring my swimming stuff."
"You do not seriously think we actually wore anything when we went swimming, do you?"
"Well, now that you mention it… and it is quite hot today…"
"Good. Alex, could you and Leo set out the ramp, please?"
So we set the ramp and then went down to the cabin to get undressed. As I'd sort of expected, Billy was reluctant to join us, saying that he ought to stay on board and keep an eye on the firebox.
"Sod that!" said Alex. "It's damned hot in there, and outside there's a lot of nice cool water. I'm certainly going in, and if I am, you can, too. Except… you can swim, I suppose?"
"Of course I can! It's just… Oh, all right, then. You're right – it is too hot back there."
That was easier than I'd thought. I'm not sure whether Alex was being a good example to him or a bad one, but as far as getting him to join in with us went, it seemed to be working. We all stripped to our underwear, and then I helped Wolfie to remove his leg, and he didn't seem at all worried about the other two seeing his condition.
"Doesn't that hurt?" Billy asked him looking at the stump curiously.
"Sometimes, if I walk too far. And sometimes my foot itches, even though it is not there any more. That feels really strange… but most of the time it is fine."
"And can you swim like that?" I asked.
"Well enough. It is obviously not as good as having two feet, but I can manage."
"What you need," said Billy, "is another pretend leg, only instead of having a foot at the end it has a propeller, with a clockwork motor inside the leg. You'd be able to swim faster than anyone then."
"That is an amazing idea!" said Wolfie. "I will have to see if I can get someone to make me one. The only problem would be that I would have to take it off before I got out of the water, but I do not see why I could not do that… Thank you, Billy."
Wolfie wriggled out of his underwear, and Alex and I did the same. Billy hesitated for a moment, but then took a deep breath and pulled his briefs off. What followed was quite interesting: everyone started checking everybody else out quite openly. If I'd acted like that in the changing room at school I'd probably have got my head kicked in, but here nobody seemed to care, so I was quite happy to join in. Billy was the only one I hadn't seen before, of course, and he was surprisingly big, given that he was younger than the rest of us: his equipment was probably almost as big as Alex's, even though Billy didn't seem to have any hair yet. Alex seemed intrigued by the colour of Wolfie's pubes, and Wolfie and Billy were both obviously impressed with what Alex had to offer.
"Wow, that's really… grown-up," commented Billy, staring.
"It certainly is," agreed Wolfie. "How old are you, Alex?"
"I was fourteen about four weeks ago."
"That makes you about ten weeks younger than me," said Wolfie. "But you look much older. You look good."
"I like the colour of your hair," Alex replied, "and I think it'll look even better outside, because I think the sun will make it sort of glint. Shall we go and find out?"
I helped Wolfie to his feet, grateful that nobody had seen fit to make fun of me, because mine was clearly the smallest one there, even though all of the others were younger than me. Getting up the stairs onto the deck was tricky because Wolfie now only had one leg, but we got there in the end. And Alex was right about the way Wolfie's pubes caught the sun, too.
The next half-hour or so was a lot of fun: we jumped from the boat straight into the river and then splashed about, chasing each other, ducking each other, throwing each other into the air – Alex did the best job there – racing and diving and so on. A step had been cut into the bank just past the point where the boat was moored, and that made it easy to get out, run along the bank, up the ramp and then dive from the ship's rail once more. It took Billy a while to enter fully into things, but eventually he threw off his inhibitions and just enjoyed himself.
Wolfie, of course, couldn't manage out of the water on his own – or not without crawling, anyway – so we took it in turns to help him whenever he wanted to return to the boat for another dive. But in the water he managed perfectly well.
Eventually we got out of the river, dried ourselves off – Wolfie had thoughtfully brought four towels with him, tucked into the pocket on the back of his chair – and then lay on the bank in the sun for a while. This was very relaxing, and I had just about fallen asleep when something wet and slimy landed on my face, jolting me awake in an instant. I snatched at my face and found a piece of water-weed across it, and when I had clawed it away I saw Alex leaning over me and grinning.
"Oh, you are so dead!" I told him, grabbing his ankles and tripping him up.
I've never yet won a wrestling match with Alex, and I didn't look like winning this one either: he soon had me pinned down and squirming uselessly. But then he got off me, went over to where Billy was sitting up watching us, and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Tag!" he said. "Go on, Billy, take over for me. Chuck him in the river!"
"You can try," I said, when Billy hesitated, "but you'll be the one who gets wet!"
Billy took the challenge and jumped on me, and we wrestled for a while. This was a much more even bout: I was older, slightly taller and a little heavier, but he was tougher than me because he was used to manual work, and eventually he managed to get on top and stay there.
"You wait," I said. "If I can get my hand free I'll pull your balls off!"
"Oh, so you want to fight dirty?" He rolled me over so that I was face down, pulled one of my arms far enough up behind my back to be painful, and then, just as I was thinking of submitting anyway, he wriggled his other hand underneath me and seized my balls.
"Stand up," he ordered. "And don't struggle unless you want to lose something important!"
So I stood up carefully, making no attempt to struggle – he was already holding my balls quite tightly. He marched me up the ramp and to the ship's rail, and then just as I was thinking he wouldn't actually do it, he let go of my balls and pushed, and I ended up in the river. I'd been quite warm, first from sunbathing and then from my exertions wrestling, and so this time the water felt positively cold.
I splashed my way to the bank and scrambled onto dry ground, and Wolfie tossed my towel to me. I took it gratefully and started to dry myself. Meanwhile Billy came back down the ramp and looked at me a little apprehensively.
"Sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have done that."
"Of course you should," I told him. "I threatened to do it to you first, and maybe next time I will. It was a fair fight, so you shouldn't apologise for winning – even if it was pure luck."
"Was it, hell!" he replied. "I'm just stronger than you. Although it's probably because I get a lot of practice: us stable lads spend a lot of time wrestling, and some of the others fight dirty, too, so I'm used to it. You were easy compared to some of them!"
"Yeah? Want a rematch?"
"But not now," interrupted Wolfie. "We ought to be getting back. Could you help me back on board?"
So we went back on board and got dressed, and Billy went to get the fire going and to raise steam once more. It was a lot quicker this time because the fire was already hot, and so in the time it took us to finish getting dressed, untie the mooring lines and get the ramp back on board the boiler was almost ready. Wolfie went back to the wheel and Alex went to continue his lesson from Billy, and I just sat next to Wolfie and watched as he turned the boat round and headed back the way we had come.
When we were about halfway back I went below to see how Alex was doing. It was really quite hot in the engine room and both Alex and Billy had their shirts off, and I thought once more how good Alex looked, especially with a sheen of sweat on his chest…. I shook the thought aside and looked at Billy instead, who was a lot skinnier: like me his chest seemed to be mostly skin and ribs. There was no question that he had some strength, though.
"I just came to say 'Thank you'," I said to him. "Thanks for joining in with us, even if it made you feel a bit uncomfortable."
He shrugged. "Actually it was fun," he said. "I just told myself it was like being out playing with three of the other lads, and then it wasn't too difficult."
"So you think you'll be able to do that sort of thing again?"
"I'm sure I will".
"Great! Mind you, next time we fight I'm definitely going to win… what are you laughing at, Ox-man?"
"He'll kill you every time," said Alex, grinning at me. "He's got muscles where you've got flab."
"Oh, has he? We'll see!"
"More coal," said Billy. "Keep watching the gauge, Alex – you can talk to someone without losing sight of what you're here for."
Alex added a shovel of coal to the firebox, and this time Billy seemed satisfied with his effort.
"You'd better sleep at the stables tonight," I said to Billy. "I'll try to sort you out a room in the house from tomorrow, though. It shouldn't be a problem: there are quite a few empty ones - unless you'd prefer to stay with your friends, of course?"
"No, I think I'd like to find out what it's like to have a room to myself," he said. "It'll make a change to get away from sleeping next to Tommy Green. He snores. With a bit of luck Mr Francis will give that bed to someone else, and then when I come back I'll be a nice long way away from him."
We reached the boathouse and Wolfie gave an impressive display of helmsmanship by reversing perfectly into position against the dock. We tied up, waited while Billy made the boiler and firebox safe and then locked up and walked through the wood and back up the Long Meadow to the house. We said goodbye to Billy by the stables, promising him that we'd come and find him as soon as we had arranged a room for him, and then we walked on to the house to get ready for supper.
In my room I found some clothes laid out on the bed, including a full evening suit, and when Alex went through to his room he found a similar set waiting for him. Since nobody had yet taken our measurements I had no idea how the clothes had been ordered, but when we got down to supper, formally attired – and I had no recollection of ever having worn a bow tie before, so Wolfie had to tie mine, and Alex's, for us – my uncle said that this was purely a temporary arrangement: the suit I was wearing was one of Wolfie's – he had more than one, of course – and the one Alex was wearing had belonged to Lord Brookhampton's eldest son, who had outgrown it.
"We'll get you measured for some proper clothes tomorrow," my uncle told us. "But at least these will keep you going in the short term. Leo, we're also going to have to think about a flying uniform for you. You probably can't remember this, but the rule for officers on privateers is basically to wear something in which you feel comfortable. We don't generally wear the same sort of uniform as the naval officers do: you're more or less free to design something yourself. Of course if you want to wear a uniform, that's fine, but it shouldn't look like those worn by the regular naval officers. Talk it over with Wolfie later, if you like."
"Am I going to be flying soon, then?" I asked.
"Perhaps. If you can't remember anything from your earlier flights we need to get you used to it again fairly quickly. I'll certainly want you with us if we find ourselves taking part in an expedition to Greenland."
"Right. But… you haven't forgotten about us wanting to try to find the way to get back to our world, have you?"
"No, and I'll make the auto-carriage available to you whenever you want to do that. But… you're not intending to leave us again, I hope."
I shook my head. "This is where I belong. Clearly it's my duty to stay, but even if it wasn't I think I would want to, even without any memory of the past. But Alex needs to be able to get home. Even if he eventually decides to stay here with me – and we haven't even discussed that yet – he has a family in London, and he can't simply vanish without telling them where he's gone. I need to get a message to my foster-parents, too, come to that."
"Of course. Just let me know what you want to do and I will arrange it."
When I went to help Wolfie with his leg that night – and I decided to continue to 'massage' it myself: I didn't want Alex to suddenly start grabbing Wolfie's bum the way he had mine – I asked if we would be able to get hold of some spare bedding.
"Tomorrow night I'd like it if you and I could sleep upstairs," I said. "I seriously think that being with you in that room overnight would help me to remember stuff."
"Of course, and I would like very much to do that, even if you do not regain your memories. Leo, what you told Uncle Gil tonight, about staying here… you did mean it, yes?"
I nodded. "Of course it would be easier if I could remember," I said, "but even if I can't, I think this is where I belong. If you can be King of Prussia with one leg, I can be Duke of Culham with no memory. Except… I've been wondering: I've been missing for a very long time. How come Uncle Gil didn't just have me declared dead? That way he could have claimed the title for himself."
Wolfie stared at me. "He would never have done that! Even if ten years had gone by, or twenty, you would still have been the rightful duke until we knew for certain that you were dead. Nobody would try to steal another's title or position. Is there no concept of honour where you have been living?"
"Well, not much of one, I don't think," I said, thinking of the riots.
"Then clearly I shall have to teach you how important it is. And I have a way to do that which I will show you tomorrow."
I helped him into bed and said goodnight and then went back to my room, where Alex was waiting for me: we'd decided that we'd stay together for sleeping purposes at least until we knew if it would be possible to return to his world.
"What with all that swimming today, I'm sure you could use a message," he suggested.
"I'm sure I could," I agreed, and I got undressed very quickly indeed. So did he, and that made it even more interesting, especially when I was lying on my back and so was in a position to see him. It was obvious – more than five inches' worth of obvious – that he was enjoying the experience, and so this time when I got an erection myself it didn't bother me at all. And when he had finished the actual massage he lay down beside me, pulling the covers over us, and rubbed me in a wonderful, slow and sensuous way, making it last for absolutely ages. Afterwards I insisted on doing it for him too, and this time he didn't argue, just letting me get on with it. I don't know if I did it half as well as he did, but he certainly seemed to enjoy it.
Once he'd been to dispose of the evidence he turned out the light, got back into bed and pulled me close to him, and I snuggled up to him contentedly.
"Alex," I asked, after a bit, "what are you going to do about going home?"
"I don't know. I think it could be a really interesting life here. Your family seems to be loaded – at least, if it can afford to build and fly its own airships it must be – and I think I'd get to do loads of stuff here I could never do at home – like flying in an airship, for a start. But… well, I've got a family, haven't I? I'd hate it if I never saw my parents again, or my sis, even if she is a pain sometimes. It's different for you: I know you really liked your uncle and aunt, but… well, they weren't your real parents, were they?"
"No, but I'd still really miss them if I never saw them again. Okay, I meant what I said earlier about staying here, but I'd still like a chance to go and say goodbye to Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim first. I suppose what we really need is to find that the hole between worlds is permanent, because that way we could come and go whenever we want. But I don't suppose it can be, because otherwise people would know about it, on both sides."
"Oh, well, we'll just have to wait and see, I suppose. Another thing: I was wondering whether Wolfie picked Billy to come with us today because he hoped I'd start fancying Billy, and that would stop me getting between you and him."
"I'm sure he didn't. First, Wolfie doesn't know you're gay – I certainly haven't told him so, anyway. Second, after what he said to me half an hour ago I think he would consider doing something sneaky like that dishonourable. And third, he didn't pick Billy – Mr Francis did, remember? He might have picked a complete troll, so it was pure chance we ended up with a blondie like Billy."
"I suppose so. Actually I think we got lucky there: he is easy to look at, but more important, he's a nice kid, and when he got over his class problem and started joining in properly he was fun to be with. And I enjoyed watching him beat you up, too!"
"He was just lucky – although I'll grant you that he's got some strength. I think 'wiry' is probably the word. But next time I'll grab those big balls of his before he can get hold of mine, and then we'll see who's best."
"You'll be lucky! Mind you, they are quite big, aren't they? They're at least as big as yours, and of course his knob is twice the size… aargh!"
I'd grabbed his balls and given them a quick squeeze.
"You're welcome to go and sleep with him, if you think he's so much better than me," I suggested.
"Don't be stupid. He could be built like a Greek god - and we Greeks know all about gods – and hung like a horse, and I'd still stick with you every time. We're a team, remember?"
"Good," I said, letting go. "And don't you forget it."
And I snuggled up to him and went to sleep.
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