Watching from a vantage point on the bridge that gave him clear sight to the gangplank, Alexi observed the new arrivals. He didn’t know any of the men boarding the ship other than by name and appearance. Shelly Jefferson he knew as much by reputation as anything else, and it was this man’s appearance that most caught his eye. The consort was stunning. There was no denying fact. Nothing he wore could be considered feminine, yet it was far from the manly attire favored in fashionable circles. And yet he remained, in appearance, every inch a man on the very cutting edge of fashion he left behind the wake of his elegance.
“So how does he manage it?” Not that Alexi wanted to emulate him. His own penchant for feminine attire was different. He admired Jefferson’s flair, but liked passing himself off as a woman. It amused him that he could, and oddly, gave him confidence in situations when he rather felt out of his depth. There were situations he could approach under the guise of a woman that he would not dare broach as a man.
“Like Leo.” Growling, Alexi pushed away from the railing and headed back to the workroom annoyed that he found he was talking to myself. Something that only happened these days when he was feeling unsettled. He would rather ensconce himself safely away with the tools and gadgets of his trade until the dinner bell forced him into the company of strangers. He was not in the mood for niceties and small talk.
When he arrived, he found Caleb already deeply involved in an intricate machining sequence. Careful not to disturb his friend’s precision work, he cleared himself an area of the work surface and unrolled his tool pouch.
“Another commission for Jack?” Caleb asked without looking up.
“No.” Alexi heard the growl in his voice and attempted to mitigate his tone. “Though I do appreciate your generosity in sharing your space and materials.”
A slight smile passed over Caleb’s face. “Generosity had nothing to do with it. Mr. Starr offered me a tidy sum, considering you will be doing all the work. I almost feel like I am robbing you.”
“Nonsense.” Alexi settled onto a high stool next to the cleared spot on the table. “A fair price for the materials and space. I can make my own arrangements with him for my time.” He spread out the jacket Jack had given him to modify, and examined the liner of the right sleeve. “Fine workmanship, this. He has an excellent tailor.”
Caleb glanced up from his work, and Alexi caught the curious look in his eye. “I wouldn’t know, I’m afraid. The same sweet old woman has been fashioning my clothing since I was barely in long pants. She does a passable job. I suppose you would know more about fine tailoring than I would.”
A rush of nerves flooded through Alexi and he set the jacket down, smoothing his hands over the fine, supple leather. “You have something you’d like to ask?”
“It really is none of my business.” Caleb’s cheeks flushed pink and he dropped his head, focusing back on his task.
“If we are to be friends, we really ought to be able to trust one another. I don’t know what is behind this summons, or that it really has anything to do with us, but we are here now, and perhaps it is good to know who we have at our back, yes?”
Caleb nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. Though for the life of me, I cannot fathom why you are being so nice to someone you barely know. Someone you met while he tried to thieve from you.”
Alexi selected a tiny, sharp pair of snips and began carefully clipping the liner of Jack’s sleeve away from the leather, speaking as he worked. “When you snuck into my rooms that day, and I saw the way you looked to Beare, it reminded me very much of the way I felt the first time he caught a certain…lady slipping into my rooms.” He glanced up to ascertain if his confession would meet with shock, disgust or outrage.
Caleb was watching him thoughtfully. “So it is true.”
Alexi shrugged. “Many things are true. Many are false. To which might you be referring?”
“That the lovely young woman often seen on Leonard’s arm is not your kinswoman at all, but someone far closer to you.”
Alexi smiled. “Hmmm. I suppose one could say that, yes.”
“Does he know?”
“Leo?” Alexi frowned. “Oh, yes. He knows. He knows all about it. He just doesn’t understand.”
“I am sorry,” Caleb said softly.
“Whatever for?” Alexi shook himself in an attempt to clear away his rapidly fouling mood.
Caleb sighed. “That your very good friend doesn’t find himself able to be happy for you. You’ve found joy, and he can’t share it, and that can’t be easy.” He sighed again. “It can drive a wedge between even the closest of people. Take my brother. He tries, but he hardly understands my love of all this.” Caleb waved his hand around the small workroom. “Or much else about me, in fact. If I could ever get him to be still and quiet long enough to explain, it might be different. But he isn’t really a talker. Or a listener. He much prefers action. I’m afraid he will never understand my lack of action when it comes to finding a wife.”
Alexi had to wonder if Caleb understood that particular procrastination himself.
Caleb shrugged. “With any luck, this venture will help him see I’m not wasting my time.”
Alexi nodded. “I see your point. Yes.” Suddenly thoughtful, he set aside Jack’s coat and reached instead for the spring mechanism he would use to release the hidden blade. “A captive audience could possibly be made to listen. Do you have anything similar to this, but a little bit heavier?”
“I might.” Caleb took the mechanism from him and studied it as he wheeled across the short distance to a tray filled with odds and ends. “Ah, here we are. I though perhaps I had left it behind. He pulled out something that looked like the rounded back end of one of his fanciful clockwork beasts. “It was bound to be a rabbit, but the commission changed at the last minute, when the client found out he had fathered twin boys and not the girls he had hoped for.”
“Who ever hopes for twin girls?” Alexi asked.
“I dare say a man with an eye to buying his way into one of the wealthiest, most paternally gifted of families in the Empire.” Caleb snorted when Alexi gazed at him blankly.
“Do tell,” Caleb said, “how many boys does your brother have now?”
Alexi flushed. “Six, I believe.”
“And your sister?”
“Has just birthed her third.”
“My advice to you, Jacob, whether you fancy the burden of being lord of the manor or not, find yourself a wife and settle down before that vast fortune of yours is split and scattered to the four winds.”
“I hardly need my father’s money to make my way in the world,” Alexi muttered, as he examined the half of a rabbit and reimagined a much more useful life for the half cylinders of copper making up the beast’s body.
“But it would keep one in frocks, I dare say.”
Alexi’s head snapped up. “Pardon me?”
Caleb’s expression remained impassive, his attention on his own work. “Any woman would be more than pleased with the chance to get at your very fine tailors, Jacob.” He glanced up with a smile. “You would be surprised what a woman will forgo for a wardrobe filled with pretty things.”
“Of course.” Alexi almost sagged with relief that his secret still appeared to be safe. “If I were so inclined, I could by any number of lovely things out of my own pocket, without recourse to my father’s fortune.”
Caleb looked up and caught his eye. “Take some advice from a friend, Jacob. You don’t even realize half of the advantages your privilege of wealth gives you. I didn’t until it was gone. You do not want to be left to the teeth of this world without your father’s money. It shields you from much more than you even know.”
“I have seen the underbelly of our society,” Alexi protested, thinking of Alana and the Dodges, who kept his inventions safe from prying eyes. He pried at the copper parts in his hands, failing to see how they had been attached so he could get them apart.
“From above, Jacob. Always from above. I assure you, the view is very different when you are the one looking up.” Caleb rose and took the half-built contraption from him. “Like this,” he offered, turning the device over in his palm and pointing to a tiny lever on the inside curve. “Press this and voila.” The parts fell apart in his hands. “For a baby, it is merely a whimsical toy rabbit. As the child gets older, if they are clever enough, it becomes a puzzle. Easy to take apart when you know how. And here is the spring mechanism you were after.” He held up the bit between thumb and forefinger. “Though of course, you’re welcome to the entire lot, if you can find a use for it.”
“Less simple to reassemble, I wager.” Alexi accepted the pieces back. “That is brilliant.”
Caleb grinned. “It is, rather, isn’t it?”
Alexi picked up a piece of the rabbit’s disassembled body and fitted it around his wrist. It encased his own thin limb easily by half. “May I?” he motioned to Caleb’s wrist. “I fear I’m an ill fit for most things.”
Caleb offered his arm, and Alexi fit he half cylinder around his wrist. It was a snug fit. “Much better.”
Caleb rotated his wrist. “Rather sharp edges. A man could be seriously hurt like this.”
Alexi glanced at the leather of Jack’s jacket. “Easily enough remedied, I think.” He retrieved the section with the trigger and turned it over in his hands. “A lock without a key.” Alexi studied the mechanism. “Unless you know the secret.”
“Or the person who knows it.” Caleb sat back at his spot. “Why do I get the feeling these locks you envision aren’t for your enemies?”
“A captive audience,” Alexi said with a wicked grin. “Sometimes, a man requires some assistance in seeing what is right in front of him. Oddly enough, I have to credit Jack Starr himself with that lesson.” He fitted two of the half circles together to form a whole and looked at Caleb through it. “Perhaps it is the same with friendship as with privilege. We take much for granted until the moment we see it about to be taken away. Well.” He knew his smile had probably turned a little bit feral. “My eyes have definitely been opened. Whatever is in store for us on this trip, Caleb, when I return home, there will be a reckoning.”