Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 14

We didn't find out about the meteor until the following Thursday, which was October 20th, and by then the weather had changed: it had been unseasonably warm right through September and as far as mid-October, but on October 15th the temperature dropped and it started to feel like autumn. It wasn't quite cold enough to start lighting the fires yet, but coal scuttles appeared in the bedrooms and I started to think about ordering some winter clothing.

I'd allowed Wolfie to talk me into making my second attempt on navigating the secret passages naked and without a light, and I'd even agreed to start from the ice house, provided that he came with me. And so straight after breakfast on the Saturday morning we went down to the cellar and opened the panel the led to the foot of the original stairs. As I had hoped, there was a keyhole here that opened the door to the ice house tunnel, and that at least saved us from having to go down through the secret room.

We closed the panel behind us, left the skewer in the keyhole on the tunnel side so that we could find it by touch when we came back, and then walked down the tunnel to the ice house, and I was thinking that it was quite cold in here even fully dressed. Still, I suppose neither of us wanted to back out – at least, Wolfie didn't say anything, and so neither did I. So we kept going until we reached the ice-house. We locked the outside door from the inside, got undressed and left everything on the ice-house floor except for the key and the box of lucifers that Wolfie had brought with him. Then we stepped into the passage and pulled the door closed behind us. Wolfie blew out the lucifer he'd struck to allow me to close the door, leaving us in complete darkness.

"Have you decided this is a bad idea yet?" I asked him.

"I decided that when I realised how cold it was. Still, I suppose that's what an ice-house is for – perhaps it'll get warmer once we get back to the house."

"Then let's get on with it," I said, and took a couple of steps into the tunnel.

"Wait! I think it would be a good idea if we stayed in contact – just in case, you understand."

And he took hold of my hand. I didn't think that was strictly necessary, but on the other hand I liked holding hands with Wolfie, so I didn't raise any objection.

"So what do you make of the French boy?" he asked me.

"I don't know, really. Brainy, certainly – I didn't understand a quarter of what he told us about the armour. Quiet, too, but I suppose you'd expect that, considering that he's just lost his father. That's about it, really."

"Don't you think he's good-looking?"

"Well, yes, I suppose so. I wouldn't have thought he'd be interested in joining in with our games, though."

"I wasn't thinking of asking him to do that. I thought I might ask him if he'd like to spend some time with me one evening. Just me."

I stopped moving. "Wolfgang-Christian, you can stop that right now!" I said. "Stop trying to wind me up – it isn't going to work!"

"I'm not trying to wind you up. I'm serious – after all, he's clearly nearer our class than a stable-lad would be, and I'd feel far better about cuddling him than a stable-lad."

"You only chose to tell me that here because you knew that if I could see your face you'd never be able to stop yourself from cracking up," I accused.

"No, not really… well, all right, perhaps that's true. But I am sort of serious – not about cuddling him, obviously: even if he likes boys, he probably wouldn't be in the mood right now. But I thought it might help him settle in a bit – after all, he's a German speaker, which limits his options socially to you and me, and you're usually a lot busier than I am. But I wanted to ask you first if you think it's a good idea – and, joking aside, I didn't want you to think I was doing stuff behind your back."

"I think it's a great idea," I said, starting to walk once more. "I've already told him he can speak to either of us if he needs someone to talk to, and you're probably right about you having more free time than me. So, yes, I think you should suggest it to him. And if he does end up wanting a cuddle, go right ahead. I promise not to hit you too hard afterwards!"

I was glad Wolfie had come up with the idea, because I'd hardly spoken to Tim in the past couple of days and I thought it would be a good thing if he had someone to talk to – after all, it's hard enough to move to a new country at any time, even if you haven't just become an orphan.

"Here's the alcove with the lever," I reported a couple of minutes later. "I think it was about halfway between the cellar and the ice-house, so we're getting there."

"Let's speed up a bit," said Wolfie. "I'm freezing."

So I walked a bit faster for the next hundred paces or so, but then I slowed down again because I didn't want to walk at full speed into a wall and I wasn't sure how much further we still had to go. If I'd thought about it sooner I would have counted the steps so far, but it was a bit late for that now.

It wasn't getting any warmer, either – in fact by now I was actually shivering, and I decided that, whether we managed to get out of the system without using the lucifers or not, there was no way that I was going to do this again until next Easter at the very earliest.

Finally – by which time I'd been flinching away from an anticipated end wall for several seconds – my outstretched hand, which I'd been keeping in contact with the left-hand wall, encountered empty air.

"Here's where the tunnel divides," I said, finding the wall again and following the left-hand tunnel. This soon came to an end, and a bit of feeling around led me to the skewer. The door opened, leading us to the bottom of the stairs.

It was surprising how much easier and less scary this was with a companion than it had been on my own. It was still pitch dark, there were still cobwebs in places – those damned spiders seemed to rebuild almost as soon as we'd cleaned up – and I still wasn't completely sure of where I was a couple of times. But having someone to talk to and to hold on to made this experience far less of an ordeal. Eventually we found our way up to the attic, and this time I managed to open the panel without any difficulty. We stepped out into the attic.

"Mission accomplished," I said. "Agreed?"

"Well, obviously the original bet was that you had to do it on your own," Wolfie began.

"It was your idea to come with me!" I protested.

"You could have always said no. But… no, I think it would be a bit unfair to claim that this doesn't count. So, yes, as far as I'm concerned the debt is paid."

"Good. If you hadn't agreed I think I'd have knocked you out, dumped you in some random part of the passage system and taken your leg as well as your clothes. I bet having to crawl through the system would have taught you a lesson!"

"You wouldn't do that," he said confidently. "You're not that nasty."

"You're probably right, but maybe if you push me too far… anyway, if we'd been thinking ahead we'd have left a set of clothes up here, but we didn't, so what do we do now? Are we going to risk going back to my room the normal way and risk running into one of the maids, or are we going to play it safe and go back through the secret passages?"

"I think it might be fun to run naked through the house," he said, grinning at me. "In fact I dare you!"

"You're on!" I said recklessly.

I wasn't too worried about the stairs down from the attic to the third floor, but then we'd have to run the entire length of the third floor corridor, past Sparrer's and Billy's rooms, and then down another staircase to the second floor, and then along another corridor which went past Joe's and Alex's rooms before reaching first Wolfie's room and then mine. Quite apart from the risk of bumping into a servant, it seemed entirely likely that we might bump into one or more of our friends, which would also be embarrassing. Still, I thought it would be sort of fun to make the attempt.

We tiptoed down the stairs to the third floor, peeped out into the corridor, found it to be empty and ran along it to the stairs that led down to the second floor. I was impressed by how fast Wolfie was able to move: for the past four weeks he'd stuck grimly to his resolution not to use his chair at all, and by now he was managing both distance and speed without causing himself too much pain.

We sneaked down the second staircase, which came out opposite the guest room where Joe was staying. Again the coast looked clear, so we stepped out into the corridor and had taken three paces when Tim appeared at the top of the main stairs. It was far too late to go back because he was only five yards away and staring straight at us.

"Good morning!" I said in German, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Good morning," he replied. "What happened to your clothes?"

"Didn't anybody tell you?" said Wolfie, before I could think of a good answer. "Saturday is Naturist Day. It's traditional for everyone to go naked on Saturdays. You'd better go and get your own clothes off before people start laughing at you."

"Really? How is it then that Alex and Joe are playing chess on the terrace outside the front door with all their clothes on?"

"They must have forgotten," said Wolfie somehow keeping a straight face. "Maybe you should go and remind them as soon as you've taken your own clothes off."

"And maybe I'll just stay as I am until I hear it from someone reliable."

"Nice try, Wolfie," I said, "but I think Tim's a bit too clever to fall for that. Actually, Tim, this is the result of a bet. We were hoping not to meet anyone… can you do us a favour and not tell the others? Alex would never shut up about it if he knew you'd caught us like this."

"You must have some strange bets in this country," said Tim. "At my school people normally bet money or sweets. And how did you both manage to lose?"

"Well, actually I lost, but Wolfie agreed to come with me," I said. "Just for fun. We used to do lots of stuff like this when we were younger – running about on the roof with no trousers on and stuff like that. I suppose we're just a bit strange."

"A bit?"

"Well, okay, we're very strange. Anyway, we're going to go and get dressed, okay?"

"Actually, Tim," said Wolfie, "would you mind coming to help me get dressed? That way I won't have to wait while Leo goes and gets his own clothes on first."

"Yes, if you like," agreed Tim, and he followed Wolfie along the corridor and into his room. I carried on to mine, found myself a clean set of clothes and got dressed. Then I went back to Wolfie's room, but before I could knock I heard both of them laughing loudly. I knocked and put my head around the door.

Wolfie was lying on the bed, still naked but without his artificial leg, and Tim was rubbing the marks that it had left around his knee. They were both still laughing, and I was delighted to see it: Tim had barely smiled since his arrival, which I suppose was understandable, but now he looked positively happy.

"I'll go and see how Alex and Joe are doing," I told them. "Come and join us when you're ready. Take your time, though – there's no hurry."

"No, wait," said Tim, as I started to close the door again. "Did you really make a bet about whose hair would grow first when you were only ten?"

"Well, yes," I said. "I'm a few months older than Wolfie, so I was sure I was going to win, and he was a bit taller than me, so he was sure he was going to. And as it turned out he was right."

"So I noticed," said Tim, grinning at me.

I don't know what Wolfie had been saying to him, but clearly he had not only managed to get Tim laughing, but he had also convinced him that I hadn't been joking about wanting him to feel he was our friend, rather than adhering to protocol.

"Hey, I have got some, you know!"

"Really?"

"Yes, really. Anyway, you're even smaller than me, so I bet you haven't!"

"And you really want to have a bet about that, do you? How much?"

I came right into the room and closed the door behind me.

"We don't bet money," I said. "It wouldn't be fair, because I don't suppose you've got very much."

"That doesn't matter, because I'm not going to lose. But if you prefer having to run about the place undressed again instead, I don't mind – except that, unlike Wolfie, I won't be doing it with you. I'll just watch and laugh."

"Either you're bluffing, or it would be very silly to bet against you," I said, "and if you're bluffing, you're doing it really well."

"How badly do you want to find out?"

"Not that badly. Getting caught once was embarrassing enough, even if it was only by you. Next time it could be a whole bunch of maids."

"Good decision, because – and I'm not bluffing – you would have lost. I've got about the same amount as Wolfie. I wouldn't really have made you run about the place naked if you'd taken the bet, though."

"You should have done," said Wolfie. "We can't let him get away with stuff."

"That's true," I said. "I wouldn't have let you off… well, maybe I would, since you're a guest. And… I'm glad to see you relaxing a bit, too."

He shrugged. "I feel safe here," he said. "It isn't what I expected, to be honest: when Colonel Schaeffer said I was going to be staying with the Duke of Culham I was afraid that everything would be stiff and formal and that I'd be the only person in the house who was under fifty. But your uncle's been really kind, and you told me you didn't want any formality, and Wolfie convinced me that you really meant it, so I thought I'd see if I really could joke around with you. And it looks as if I can."

"Any time," I assured him. "Anyway, like I said, I'll go and see what the others are doing. You two come down when you're ready, okay?"

In fact they didn't come to join the rest of us for another half hour, which suggested that they were getting on very well together. By that time I'd had a game of chess against Joe, who turned out to be a better player than Alex.

"Are you allowed to play chess on a Saturday?" I asked him, hoping to distract him from the game, in which he was killing me.

"Oh, yes. A lot of the Sabbath is about sharing time with family and friends, and there's nothing wrong with games like chess."

"So you're not supposed to spend all day at the synagogue?"

"God, no. Obviously we try to get there for a service if we can, but that's all."

"But you didn't go today?"

"Well… your uncle arranged for me to go on Thursday for Sukkot," he reminded me. "I didn't like to ask twice in three days."

"Don't be silly! I'm not exactly so short of money that I can't afford a bit of coal for the car. As long as you're my guest, you can go as often as you like, okay?"

"Well… if you're sure?"

"I'm sure. I'll fix it up for next week."

But in the event Joe didn't go to the synagogue the following Saturday, because on the Thursday morning an æthership of the British Home Defence fleet landed in the Long Meadow, and when, to Mr Devlin's exasperation, I was summoned to the front reception room shortly afterwards I discovered that the visitor was Air Admiral Faulkner.

"We've got a meteor for you," he told us. "It's not quite where we were expecting it to be, but it's too good to miss because it's less than a mile from the coast, which means we'll be able to load it straight onto a freighter. There's even a dock we can use. We've already despatched a freighter with a warship escort, and we've notified the French and asked them for help with providing air cover. I'm assuming you're still willing to take part?"

"I don't see why not," said my uncle. "And I know two or three others would be willing to come with us."

"Well… there is some risk involved," said Faulkner, staring out of the window rather than looking at us. "You see, the meteor isn't in Greenland."

"Then where is it?" asked my uncle.

"It's in the Lofoten Islands."

"Where are the Lofoten Islands?" I asked, thankful that Mr Devlin wasn't in the room to witness my geographical ignorance.

"They're in northern Norway, on the west coast."

"But…isn't Norway occupied by the Russians?" I asked.

"Yes. That's why it's a bit risky. But to the best of our knowledge they don't have any bases anything like that far north – in fact the most northerly base we know about is the naval base at Bergen, and that's no further north than the Shetlands, and a good eight hundred miles south of the Lofotens. Of course, there is a big Russian naval base near Murmansk, but that's almost as far away. We sent a reconnaissance flight as soon as we tracked the meteor down, and there seems no sign of Russian activity. We think that probably enough of them land on Russian territory for them not to need to look elsewhere. And this one landed so close to the coast that, unless their astronomers are very good, they probably think it landed in the sea. That's what we thought at first, but we thought it was close enough for it to be worthwhile to send an æthership to have a look."

"Will our freighter be able to get close enough?" asked my uncle. "Isn't there a danger of ice?"

"No. There's a sea current, a continuation of the Gulf Stream, which keeps the area very mild. Quite surprisingly mild, in fact – apparently the temperature there rarely drops more than a couple of degrees below freezing, even in the winter, and for most of the year it's well above. That's another reason we thought it was worthwhile going after it, because we won't even need arctic gear. So… are you still happy to go?"

My uncle looked at me and my heart sank, because I knew what was coming.

"Leo, I don't think…" he began.

"No!" I interrupted. "I'm coming, all right? If these islands are eight hundred miles north of Shetland we're still going to need to fly non-stop for twenty-four hours, and you said yourself that you need three full watches to do that."

"Yes, but this is much more dangerous than Greenland! If the Russians do know about the meteor they're sure to come looking for it, and then anything could happen!"

"That's why we're going, isn't it – to provide air cover for the people on the ground whose job it is to move the meteor material to the ship? Look, Uncle Gil, you said yourself that my mother trained me to succeed her. She didn't intend for me to confine myself to flying within fifty miles of Culham."

"No, but nor did she intend for you to be flying into a war zone at fourteen years old. You know yourself that you didn't fly with her when she was going outside British air space, and if she'd known that the Russians were going to be mounting a big raid the day she died she wouldn't have taken you with her then, either."

"So how old do I have to be? Sixteen? Eighteen? Twenty-one? Fifty? Come on, Uncle, I have to learn to fly properly some time, and this mission is probably comparatively safe, because it's properly organised and there will be other ships with us. At least this way we're not going to be taken by surprise. Please?"

"We'll talk about it later," he said. "Right now we need to work out the details. So, Admiral, who else have you got lined up for this trip?"

"There are five or six on the list, though obviously we won't need more than two others, because we can count on the French sending at least three ships, and that should be more than enough to handle an odd patrolling Eagle. Who would you suggest? I thought perhaps Lord Cardington…"

I decided at this point just to keep my head down, listen to their discussion and say nothing. I thought the fact that my uncle hadn't actually sent me out of the room was a good sign, but I was pretty sure I'd have to fight to get him to allow me to come on the mission, and probably I'd have to fight even harder to get my friends on board as well, which I would have to do if I didn't want them to be extremely hacked off with me. And what about Wolfie? This was exactly the sort of trip that would cause his uncle to have kittens: there was no way he'd be allowed to come if his family found out about it. Perhaps he'd have to stow away after all…

Uncle Gil and the admiral discussed various names before settling on Lord Cardington and the Earl of Seaforth. As far as I knew I'd never met either of them, so I was none the wiser.

"The plan, such as it is so far, is to refuel at Scapa Flow and to leave there sometime on Sunday," said the admiral. "Unless the French have some other idea… in any case I've told them to rendezvous with you at the Scapa naval base no later than Sunday morning. I would imagine you'd do best to fly through Sunday night and aim to reach the Lofotens on Monday morning. That should get you there at about the same time as the surface vessels.

"Now, as far as I'm concerned this is a joint operation, but you're in charge, all right? We're supplying the surface vessels, so I think that makes it our show. On the other hand, we definitely need the Frenchies to stay with us, so I want you to be thoroughly diplomatic to whoever is in command of their lot. I know I can count on your for that. But…" He looked at me. "I know you've got doubts about this, but I think it would be a good idea if you were to take Leo along. After all, Seaforth outranks you, but Leo outranks him, and that ought to be enough to prevent him sticking his oar in too much. He's a good captain, but he doesn't seem to like English types like me telling him what to do. He respects the peerage, though, so with any luck he'll accept orders from Leo."

"I think we might spend Saturday night with Seaforth," said my uncle. "We'll probably get better accommodation there than we would at Scapa, especially if the whole of the French contingent decide to spend Saturday night there, too."

"That might be no bad idea," said the admiral. "Here's the dossier. Obviously it's incomplete because we don't yet know exactly what the French will send, but it's got everything you need to know about our surface fleet, the exact location of the meteor, the weather forecast for the next three or four days and so on. I'll leave you to study it."

He stood up. "Now I'll go and brief Cardington and Seaforth, and I'll see you at Scapa on Sunday. If anything unexpected happens, try to get a message to Cardington, or send a message to the Admiralty. They should be able to get a message to me by semaphore or, if necessary, by æthership."

We escorted him back to his ship and watched as it took off.

"Well?" I asked.

"Well, what?"

"Well, do I get to come on the mission?"

"Leo, if we'd been going to Greenland I would have had no problem with it at all: it would simply have been a long and rather boring training voyage for you. But this is completely different: even if we are only going to be one of a number of ships, there is definitely a danger that there will be fighting."

"And how am I going to learn proper tactics if I never witness a fight for myself? Sooner or later I'm going to be an æthership captain, and how am I going to learn how to deal with the Eagles if I never see one between now and then?"

"There's a time and a place, and this just isn't it. If the worst happens and we get shot down, having plenty of jumpshades isn't going to help us if we're over the ocean at the time."

"So we'll have to make sure we don't get shot down. Anyway, if we did get shot down there would be surface vessels underneath us to pick us up."

"Leo…"

"Come on, Uncle, you heard the admiral. You need me to make sure everyone else keeps in line."

"I don't think that will be a problem. I wouldn't have put Seaforth's name forward if I'd thought he'd cause trouble."

"Well, then suppose I pull rank with you? I'm the duke, after all, so what I say goes, doesn't it?"

"Nice try, Leo. You might be the duke, but I'm still your legal guardian."

"Well, actually, I'm not sure…"

I broke off, realising that it wouldn't do any good to try to claim that Uncle Jim and Auntie Megan were my most recent legal guardians: firstly, they weren't even in the same world as me, and secondly, if they had been I knew perfectly well that they would side with Uncle Gil on this issue. But then I thought of another line of attack.

"All right," I said, "but how are you going to know if the meteor is any good?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well, when Tim told us about it he said that the meteor has to be a certain type – a 'Garfield-Swizzel', or something. There wouldn't be a lot of point in shovelling tons of meteor onto a ship and bringing it all the way back here, only to find out then that it's the wrong type and we can't use it for making armour. So I suppose that means he's going to have to come and check it out on site before we start moving it. And since he's younger than me…"

"You really want to come on this trip, don't you?" my uncle asked. "The problem is that people of your age seem to think they're immortal, and so it doesn't matter what they do or where they go, nothing bad is ever going to happen to them. Unfortunately…"

"Uncle, you know I don't think like that," I interrupted. "I was on Daedalus, remember? My mother died that day, and so did a lot of other people I knew. And what happened to Wolfie is enough to show clearly that kids aren't invulnerable, too. I know that ætherships are dangerous, and I know this might be a dangerous mission. But in this family it's what we do, and I think I'm old enough to decide for myself. Don't you?"

He looked at me in silence for a few seconds.

"All right," he said, finally. "It's not so very long ago that boys of your age, and indeed younger, were serving as officers in all three branches of the defence forces. And you're right to point out that you really need some combat experience if you're going to command your own ship one day. But if you're coming, it'll be as Second Officer, and that means you obey any orders given by myself or Mr Hall immediately and without question, understand?"

"Of course," I said quickly, wanting to get in before he changed his mind.

"I'm serious, Leo. You'll have the bridge for a watch on both outward and inward flights, but if anything remotely unusual happens – anything at all – you're to summon me to the bridge. I hope we don't have to fight, but if we do your job will be to keep quiet, watch and listen, because that will be the way for you to learn.

"As for your friends, I want you to tell them honestly where we're going and allow them to make their own decision on whether or not to come – I don't want anyone being made to feel that they have no choice in the matter, alright? I think you're right about taking Timothée with us, but you can leave him to me – you just need to worry about your friends, and in particular the two from the other world. This isn't their fight, after all, so make sure they know you won't mind at all if they decide to stay here."

"What about Wolfie?" I asked. "He's already threatened to stow away if we try to leave him behind, but I don't suppose his uncle will be at all happy if he finds out that we let him come with us."

"Well… to be honest I'd like him to come, because he's got four more years' experience than you have, and he'll be able to advise you during your watches. But I think it might be a good idea if he did his best to make sure his uncle doesn't find out about it. If the worst happens I'll take responsibility, but there would, I think, be a serious danger that his uncle would take him away from here if he found out. You'd better make sure Wolfie is aware of that before he decides for certain to come."

"I will," I said. "And… thank you, Uncle. I won't let you down."

"You'd better not. Now you'd better go and round up your friends."

I ran the rest of the way back to the house. Billy was at school in the village, so I wouldn't be able to talk to him until he returned at lunchtime, and Sparrer was still having his private lessons with Foulkes and I didn't want to interrupt those either, but there was no reason why I couldn't talk to Wolfie, Alex and Joe straight away. So I ran back upstairs to the schoolroom and asked Mr Devlin if I could talk privately with my friends for a few minutes.

"Can it wait half an hour?" he asked, pointing at the clock, which was currently indicating twenty past eleven.

I considered saying 'No', but when I thought about it I supposed nobody had to make a decision right that moment, and since we were likely to miss a couple of days' school at the start of the following week I thought that maybe it would be best not to annoy Mr Devlin unnecessarily.

"Yes, Sir, it can," I said, sitting at my desk.

"Good," he said, not quite managing to stifle an expression of surprise – I'm sure he was expecting me to insist on disrupting the class again. "Then perhaps you could open your maths book to page seventy-four and solve the first three equations."

I hate algebra, and I absolutely detest quadratic equations, and I couldn't for the life of me see what good they were ever likely to be to either a duke or an æthership captain: if I ever by some amazing chance needed to solve one in either role I'd employ a certified genius like Tim to solve it for me. But for some reason they were in Mr Devlin's curriculum and that meant I had to try to do them. The result was that for the next thirty-five minutes I didn't think about the mission at all: every brain cell I had was tied up in trying to work out the values of x and y.

Finally we were dismissed and I was able to take the other three downstairs to the conference room. Leaving them there I nipped through to the servants' quarters, found Sparrer and asked him to run and meet Billy and to bring him as quickly as possible to the conference room. Then I went back there and told my friends that we'd got a meteor and that we'd probably be leaving on the mission on Saturday, but I refused to tell them any more until Billy and Sparrer joined us – after all, there didn't seem any point in going through it all twice.

When they arrived I got everyone to sit around the table and then placed a map of northern Europe in front of them.

"We've found a meteor," I told them, "but there's a slight snag: it's not in Greenland, it's in Norway, and Norway is occupied by Russia. The meteor is right on the coast – it's up here, in these islands," and I indicated the Lofotens on the map. "We're fairly sure there are no Russian bases anywhere close to it, and if we're lucky the Russians don't even know there's a meteor there, but if they do find out about it this is likely to be a far more dangerous mission than it would have been if we'd gone to Greenland. So we don't have to go, okay? My uncle asked me to make sure that you know that. Joe, I know you want to be back home before the end of half term, and if you were to come on this trip it would only leave three or four days for you to get back home, and if you have to wait for the hole to appear…

"Anyway, I don't want to hear your answers yet: I want you to think about it over lunch and then come back here once you've eaten and let me know."

"Jus' one question," said Sparrer. "Wot abaht you? Are you goin'?"

"Yes, but that doesn't mean anyone else has to."

Sparrer opened his mouth again, but I got in first.

"After lunch," I insisted. "We'll talk about it after you've had time to think, not before." And I stood up and walked out of the room.

Wolfie followed me out, but the others stayed behind.

"You know they're all going to want to come, don't you?" he asked me as we headed for the dining room.

"Well, yes, but I'd prefer them not to. I don't think I could take it if anything happened to any of them."

"It's not your choice," he pointed out. "I'll wager your uncle tried to talk you out of going, didn't he? Yes, I thought so. And that didn't do any good either, because you've got a mind of your own. Well, so have your friends, and I will be astonished if they don't all decide to come with you. None of us will want to be left behind."

"Yes, well, maybe you should all think about it," I said. "You in particular, because I imagine your uncle will bust a blood vessel if he finds out that you flew into enemy territory."

"He can bust as many as he wants, I'm still not letting you go without me."

"Yes, but Uncle Gil thinks he'll be so angry about it that he'll take you away and make you live somewhere else, and I couldn't stand it if that happened."

He was silent for a moment.

"He won't be able to do that unless he's prepared to lock me up," he said, "because I'll run away and come back here every time. Even if he packs me off to France or Ireland I'll still find my way back. Eventually he'll realise that I'm not going to give you up. Or I'll just hide in the secret room every time he comes looking for me and stay there until he gives up and goes away again."

"I'm not sure if that's a very good idea. If he thinks Uncle Gil is deliberately hiding you it might cause a serious diplomatic incident. It would be a lot better for you to talk to him and try to explain that you want to stay here."

"He'll just go on and on about duty and why it's more important for me to stay alive than to do what I want. I can almost hear him now."

"Then maybe you should stay here… okay," I said hurriedly, seeing the look on his face. "If you don't want to stay here we'll just have to hope that he doesn't find out about it. After all, we should only be away for four or five days…"

I was anything but surprised after lunch when all of the others told me they were coming too. Billy said that a personal servant follows his master everywhere; Alex said that he wasn't going to let me go and get into trouble unless he came too to pull me out of it again; and Joe said that this was likely to be the most exciting thing that happened in his entire life and that he wasn't going to miss out, even if it meant that he got back to school again later than he'd intended to.

"What about you, Ben?" I asked Sparrer. "At least you're sensible enough to know that it's not too bright to put yourself in danger if you don't have to."

"Stuff that! I ain't gonna miss aht on a chance of a proper trip in your flyin' machine, an' nor am I gonna let all me mates go somewhere dodgy wivaht me. Now I got some proper mates – proper friends, even – I ain't lettin' 'em dahn. Besides, if Joe's goin' I'll 'ave ter come too, 'cos uvverwise I won't 'ave no-one ter keep me warm at night!"

I stared at Joe, who looked horribly embarrassed: I'd had no idea he and Sparrer had been sharing a bed. Still, this wasn't the time to talk about that.

"All right, thank you," I said. "We're leaving early on Saturday, so you've still got plenty of time to change your minds. But if you decide to come you'll be a proper part of the crew, and that means you'll have to work your watches, and I'm pretty sure you won't have an experienced man supervising you all the time, so if you're not sure about something, shout and one of the officers will come and help. Anyway, we can worry about that once we know for sure who's coming. And now I suppose we ought to get ready for this afternoon's classes…"

I stood up and headed towards the schoolroom, but Joe caught up with me before I reached the foot of the stairs.

"Look, Leo, about me and Ben… I'm sorry. I should have told you – in fact, I really should have asked your permission before I invited one of your servants to share my room. It's just that we spent a lot of time talking to each other after the flight last Sunday, and we got on really well. And then on Tuesday evening after supper he came up to my room so we could talk some more – he was telling me about living in the sewers and I told him a bit about my world.

"That kept us talking for ages. It got dark and I lit the light, and we still kept talking, and eventually I said I thought we probably ought to go to bed because it was nearly eleven o'clock, and he asked if he could just sleep in my room so we could go on talking, because the bed was certainly big enough…. Look, we're going to be late for classes. I'll tell you the rest later."

I suspected that he didn't want to say any more right then because Alex and Wolfie were coming towards us, and so I just said, "Okay" and carried on up the stairs. But after supper he invited me to his room, and when I got there I found Sparrer sitting beside him on the bed.

"Like I said at lunchtime, I'm sorry about not asking you first," Joe began.

"I didn't get a chance to say this at lunchtime, but you don't need to ask my permission to do anything," I told him. "And Spa… I mean, Ben isn't a servant anyway; he's a guest… well, more or less. But even if he was a servant you wouldn't need my permission to talk to him, or to share a room – okay?"

"Yes, but we weren't just talking, or even sharing a room…"

"I don't care. Joe, in case you haven't realised this yet, Wolfie and I share a bed a lot of the time, and I'm pretty sure Alex and Billy do too, so if you two are going to do the same thing, good luck to you."

"Toldja," said Sparrer. "I sed 'e wouldn't care, dint I? I don't fink 'e'd even care if we 'ad sex 'alfway up the main stairs."

"I wouldn't," I assured him. "But my uncle might, and I don't think the servants would be too happy, either, so keep it for in here, alright? Sorry, Joe," (Joe had gone bright red), "I'm afraid Ben here does have a bit of a habit of saying what he thinks without beating about the bush. You'll get used to him eventually. But I'm a bit surprised, Ben: I thought if you were looking for a bed to share you might have picked Tim. Isn't he a bit more… well…"

"You mean, 'e ain't as ugly as Joe?" said Sparrer. "Well, I spose 'e's prettier, but 'e can't speak English, fer a start, and 'e's too serious. Joe's perfect – an' anyway, if 'e was ter grow 'is 'air longer I reckon 'e'd look good. Besides, 'e's got uvver fings wot are more important: 'e's nice ter talk to, an' 'e don't treat me like shit… not that anyone else 'ere does, eiver, but still, 'e talks like we're the same. And of course, 'e's got a massive prick…"

Joe promptly turned scarlet again.

"Didja know that Jewboys 'ave the skin cut off the end of their prick?" Sparrer went on. "I ain't never goin' ter become a Jew, that's fer sure, 'cos it must 'urt like fuck…"

"I told you, it was done when I was a week old," said Joe. "You can't remember anything that happened that far back."

"Yeah, but if I decided to become a Jew I'd 'ave ter 'ave it done now," Sparrer pointed out. "And I don't want nobody cutting bits off me prick, 'cos it's small enuff as it is."

"I think it looks nice," said Joe, before realising that I was still there, at which he went, if it were possible, even redder.

"So do I," I said, hoping to relieve his embarrassment a bit.

"It's still too titchy, though," said Sparrer. "But Joe's is massive, an' 'e's got loads of spunk," (by now Joe seemed to be trying to make himself invisible by curling up into a tiny ball), "an' best of all, 'e ain't got no…"

"Ben!" interrupted Joe, loudly. "He doesn't need to know that!"

"What don't I need to know?" I asked, my curiosity aroused.

"Nothing!" said Joe.

"Come on, spill," I said. "Whatever it is, it can't be any more embarrassing than what I've already heard, surely?"

"I'm not so sure," said Joe, not looking at me.

"Don't worry, 'cos Leo ain't gonna larf atcher," said Sparrer. "E's orlright. See, Leo, Joe ain't got no 'air, and you know as 'ow I prefer it like that. So, like I said, I reckon 'e's perfect."

I looked at Joe, who was as tall as Alex and whose voice, like Alex's, had broken ages ago.

"How come?" I asked.

"Well… it was Danny Carmody's idea," he admitted. "He thought it would be funny to make me shave, and when he suggested it to Simon – my brother – he thought it was brilliant, especially because he's already got some pubes – almost as many as Carmody, actually, though I made sure I didn't laugh at Carmody about it. So after they'd cut it all off the first time they clubbed together and bought some cream stuff that dissolves hair, and they made me use it twice a week.

"I thought I'd be able to stop after Danny got arrested, but Simon really liked me having no hair, and since I'd sworn to do what he told me I carried on. And before I left to come here, Simon made me promise to keep using it – which is how come I still haven't got any. And now I know that Ben likes me like this I suppose I'll have to go on using it…"

"You won't 'ave ter," Sparrer assured him, "'cos I ain't like your bruvver an' 'is mate: I ain't never gonna make yer do nuffink. But I'd really like it if yer did."

"But don't tell Alex – please?" begged Joe. "He'd die laughing if he knew."

"I don't think he would," I said. "Alex is safe. But I won't tell him, anyway, or Wolfie. And it might be best if neither of you mentions it to Billy, either, because he'd be sure to tell Alex."

"Ah," said Sparrer. "It might be a bit late for that, 'cos I might 'ave sort of mentioned it to 'im already, like…"

"You git!" said Joe, glaring at him.

"I don't fink it's a problem. I ain't got none, nor 'as Billy, and Leo ain't got very much, so it ain't like you're the only one. And if Curly takes the piss I'll sort 'im aht for yer."

"How do you know what Leo's got?" asked Joe, and now it was my turn to feel embarrassed.

"We've played strip games a couple of times," I admitted. "And if he challenges you to a game like that, watch him. Last time we played he cheated."

"No I never! Well, orlright, maybe once or twice," said Sparrer, grinning at me. "But I wouldn't do that ter you, Joe, 'onnist!"

"Is that how come you won last night?" asked Joe, suspiciously. "You sneaky little sod – just you wait till Leo goes! I'm going to sort you out properly!"

"Don't let me stop you," I said, standing up. "I'm sure he deserves it!"

I went to the door, told them to have fun, and left them to it. I was happy that they'd got together, because I reckoned they were both due for a bit of happiness, but at the same time I was still worried about them coming to Norway with us. I know it was their choice, just as it had been mine, but I could understand why my uncle was worried about me going on the trip, because I felt the same way about my friends coming. If the mission went wrong and something happened to any of them I didn't know if I would be able to deal with it…

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