What on earth, or above it, in this case, had Alexi gotten himself into? He’d known the invitation to the ball had never been just an invitation to a ball, of course. It had seemed like a grand adventure. A way to get out from under Leo’s scrutiny for a few days, maybe make his friend aware how much he’d miss Alexi’s company when he suddenly didn’t have it. Hopefully miss it enough for Leo to open that locked door just a fraction and see beyond to the greater possibilities lurking on the other side of friendship.
There had been no mention of murder attempts or bodies in the fine gold script on the summons from what he’d seen as it was passed around the room that day in the club. But then again, summoned by foreign politicos, in the company of spies, pirates and courtesans, what could one expect?
He twitched the sleeve of his robe and frowned at the staid line of gold braid stitched around the hem. Very…masculine. He made a face and dropped his arm to his side. When he had packed for the trip, he hadn’t quite anticipated the extent of Nash’s hedonistic side. He’d imagined a far rougher vessel and one less welcoming to the hem of a long skirt or the fine lace of a delicate glove. Unfortunate. He did miss his finery.
He wished he could send for a crate of it now, but admittedly, he hadn’t thought the whole thing through in terms of practicality. The bare minimum of tools and materials and clothing he’d brought was proving problematic and on more levels than just his offended sense of style.
After Montgomery’s near miss, Alexi had been quick to rig a few fail safes in his and Caleb’s room. If anyone attempted to surprise them in the night, they would be in for a painful little surprise or two. Nothing deadly. He didn’t want to murder anyone, just make it danm difficult for them to hide the fact they’d tried entering Jacob Silbury’s room uninvited. But the endeavour, coupled with Jack’s commission, had left him seriously short on some necessary materials to continue his studies into the workings of the aether and that was annoying.
Without his studies, he had very little to do, for one thing. And for another, without his equipment, there were fewer ways to figure out why the body had smelled of aether, what had been done to it, exactly, and how. It gave him no small measure of satisfaction to have felt the startled gazes of the other Lords at his comment earlier. How the peculiar scent could have escaped them, he didn’t know but it was a nice little coupe to have been the one to ring it t their attention.
It was less exciting to realize what the smell implied. That someone on board had access to both the knowledge and the delicate equipment necessary pointed to one of two possibilities. Either Nash had trusted someone too much with the inner workings of his vessel, or someone was keeping secrets on board that needed discovering. Nash Sutherland did not strike Alexi as a man who played loose with his trust. That meant there was someone on board very good at keeping secrets from some of the most suspicious lords of the realm. No easy feat.
It did make him doubly glad he had taken precautions, though. He’d learned well the importance of guarding his secrets. He’d have to be sure to let Nash know their rooms were off limits to valets and stewards. He wasn’t interested in maiming the help. He’d tell Caleb when next he saw him, as well.
Not that Caleb had come back to the room last night, or this morning. Alexi wasn’t a fool. He’d seen the looks and known it as only a matter of time. He just hoped, for his new friend’s sake, Montgomery was at least gentleman enough to let poor Caleb down easy when he tired of him.
On the other hand, Caleb was a grown man. He’d get over it. And in the meantime, Alexi had the privacy to do as he pleased. His little morning jaunt had carried him on softly slippered feet to a corner of the deck away from the body and it’s circle of nobles. A few crew members sat on crates lashed to the surface. One hummed softly as Alexi approached. He appeared to be sewing a tear in a fine jacket and the others were mending ropes and canvas. They didn’t speak or pay much attention to him, and he repaid the favour in kind as he leaned on the brass-covered railing to look out over the fog-shrouded land.
After a few moments, the crew’s conversation picked back up as though he wasn’t there.
Someone mentioned a name, Peter something, and they joked about the head steward’s reaction to this Peter’s not showing up for his shift that morning. The hummer did a fair impression of the elderly gentleman’s cracked voice issuing predictions of doom over his absentee employee. Too bad for Peter. If those were the old man’s dire words, they seemed to be accurate in this case.
The crew member went on, at some urging from his fellows, to imitate a few more of the staff, the ship’s first mate and even a Lord or two, which amused Alexi. He was remarkably accurate with those impersonations of men Alexi knew, almost as though he could slip into their skin as easily as Alexi slipped into his women’s clothing and persona.
“Do the new guy!” someone called.
The young impressionist turned quiet and bent over his needle and thread. “I can’t,” he said. “He’s a tough one.”
“Aw, c’mon! You haven’t even tried!”
“Takes time,” The man said. “I’ll have him down by the end of the trip. Just have to figure out what it is that makes him.”
There was a short pause before someone asked “Makes him what?”
“Makes him. You know, makes him him.” He went back to humming with a shrug.
Alexi studied him. As himself, the young man was fairly non-descript with his light brown hair, even, not-quite-pale complexion and soft brown eyes. The hair was, upon Alexi’s not so inexperienced observation of such matters, very artfully arranged to look rough cut and shaggy. A comb and a silk tie would line it into a nice queue down between his shoulder blades. A touch of powder on his cheeks, the addition of a nicely tailored waistcoat and proper shoes, and he would blend into a Lord’s ball as easily as he did an airship crew. He disappeared into the background unless he chose not to.
As Alexi watched nimble fingers manipulate needle and thread, he had to smile slightly. The man’s talent was utterly wasted on rope mending and Alexi wondered if Nash was aware he had brought such a consummate chameleon on board.
Footsteps approaching behind him alerted Alexi to company an instant before the object of his observation glanced up and past his shoulder. His expression remained neutral. His eyes flicked over Alexi and the newcomer and went back to his work. He didn’t give the appearance of it, be he was alert to everything going on around him. Alexi doubted much got past those quick, intelligent-looking eyes.
“See something you like?” A rough voice crawled over Alexi, leaving the little hairs on his neck on end. He turned to face a rather tall man, his face level with the man’s chest. Black hair escaped a braid and danced about his sun- and wind-kissed face face in the breeze. Wisps of black hair peeked from the loose ties of his shirt and freckles dusted the backs of his hands. The girl in Alexi swooned just a little bit and he didn’t have to bother faking the appreciation in his tone.
“I do now.”
That got him a wide, unabashed grin. Clearly, this man was not unaccustomed to dealing with men of greater standing.
“You’re the first mate,” Alexi said, placing the sun-warmed features with a name. “Ivar.”
Ivar nodded. “At your service, my lord.”
“Ha!” Alexi returned his big smile. “Please. Call me Jacob.” There was a time to play the lord of the manor, and a time to just, well, not. Ivar didn’t strike him as a man who needed titles to tell him another man’s worth so much as he preferred to decide that for himself. It was a trait Alexi had come to admire in Leo, Caleb and even most of the Lords he was getting to know on board the ship. He appreciated it now.
“Seems rather informal,” Ivar replied, turning to lean over the rail. His height meant he had to bend nearly double to lay his forearms on the cool railing and Jacob smiled at the view that offered.
“It does, rather, doesn’t it?” he murmured.
Ivar glanced over his shoulder at Alexi and laughed out loud at being leered at.
“So Sutherland does indeed surround himself with the like-minded,” Alexi observed, moving to the rail next to Ivar.
“Some of us don’t have the means to access a safe haven like the Lords of Aether club,” Ivar pointed out. “Do you blame us for accepting the relative freedom of working for an employer who will keep our council?”
“Hmm. Good point.” He smiled at Ivar. “And perhaps my own good fortune, it would seem.”
“Does it seem that way to you?” Ivar asked.
“The trip does hold some promise I had overlooked just a short hour ago,” Alexi admitted with another sidelong look.
“You’re just a wee mite of a thing.” Ivar looked him over critically. “I may be top dog in Mr. Sutherland’s crew, but I am still crew, my lord.” The undertone of the title led away from the mundane running of an airship and towards other, more interesting ideas. “If I wanted to be captain, I would be captain.” He faced back out over the railing and watched as clouds scudded past below them. “That isn’t a position I care to be in.”
Serenity smoothed his features and darkened blue eyes held a sense of his own place in the world he did not question.
Alexi nodded. “So I see.”
“Do you?” He threw a slanted look over at Alexi. “In my experience, young men of your…stature…are often looking for something I regrettably do not have to give.”
Alexi managed not to laugh out loud with sheer delight. The thought of the huge man being as pliant in bed as the humble worker he presented himself as made Alexi positively giddy with the possibilities. He gathered himself and his robe and turned towards his rooms. “Size, my dear man, has not a thing to do with it.”
He could feel the startled gaze on his back as he walked away and he stopped a few feet from the corner to look back. Even from the distance, he could sense the sudden hunger in the other man. “You know where my rooms are,” he called cheerfully. “If, of course, you are ever off duty.”
He didn’t wait for a response. In his experience, telling a man to come to his rooms would either bring the man to him, or not. If not, he probably wouldn’t have been interested in anything the man had to offer anyway. He very much liked when he issued orders and they were followed.
Which did not explain in the least why he could not let the idea of Leo in his bed go. He let out a sigh. No matter. At least the trip didn’t have to be boring. He picked up his pace as he left Ivar behind and headed for his room and proper clothing for the day.
The tight knot of English nobility had dispersed. The body was gone. Alexi shivered as he passed the rumple of canvas with its small stain, almost black in the morning light. It could have been left over from a paper cut, there was so little. Death should never be so tidy.
The aether smell had gone with the body.
He walked on, keeping his head high and his gaze drifting out past the railing. It wouldn’t do for the others to see weakness in him. They already thought him a vapid fool and it galled even if he pretended it didn’t. If they were to think that of him, best he play the part and maintain the shell of impersonal near-royalty his imperious father had perfected and everyone assumed he had been born with.
He passed Montgomery on his way to the cabins and barely spared him a glance. The game hunter was fully dressed now, and resting against the railing where, Alexi noted, he had only to turn his head for a nice view of the gathering of workers he had earlier been watching himself.
“Flirting with the help?” Emmet asked as he passed. A sneer curled his lips.
Alexi smiled his coldest Lord of the Manor smile at him. “At least I have the courage to bait a bear and not maim fawns from under cover of a sweet smile.”
“Maim?” Montgomery’s face took on an interesting shade of red.
“Come, Montgomery, we all know you never shoot for the heart. You don’t go for the kill. You just want them to remember they crossed your path. You leave a little, tiny scar so they know they’ve been tagged by the great white hunter.” He tossed a small, unfriendly smile over his shoulder as he headed for his cabin.
“At least I have the courage to take the shot!” Montgomery shouted after him.
Down the corridor, the door to Montgomery’s cabin opened and Caleb’s head popped out. “Emmett?”
He looked dishevelled. Not just sleep tousled, either, and Alexi had an irrational stab of jealousy. Not that he wanted Caleb at all. Just that it was obvious his friend had been distracted away from their cozy workshop and he didn’t relish the idea of the remainder of the flight or the stay in Italy without a single ally.
“So shoot away,” Alexi said, turning to face Emmett. “The group of airmen you were eyeing seem likely. Especially the one mending your coat. A right chameleon he looks. I’m sure he can be whatever you’d like him to be in your bed.”
The door at the end of the hall slammed and Alexi sighed. He didn’t like hurting Caleb, but better the man knew now how temporary his status as Montgomery’s bed-warmer was likely to be than to find out later.
“Silsbury!” Montgomery roared his name but he didn’t flinch. He quietly closed his door and locked it. There came a single thump that shook the wood in its frame, then Montgomery’s voice, cajoling, sweetly enticing from down the hall.
“Caleb. Cal, please. Open the door.”
Alexi’s triumphant little smile lasted only an instant. Leo would berate him for that show of vindictiveness. Or more likely, Leo would have stopped him showing it at all, then berated him for it. God, but he missed the man. And how ridiculous to miss being yelled at by him, but there was no denying Leo kept him on an even keel.
“So then, why not focus on what I can control?” he muttered, throwing off the boring robe and rooting through his trunk for something a bit more his style. He might not have any decent skirts to done, but he damn sure had enough frill in there to settle his nerves and himself into a role he played very well. Besides it would be interesting to see how Ivar Delaney felt about Alexi’s other half. A favourable reaction could lead to all the control Alexi needed. If he’d read the man right so far. Either way, he needed the comfort of his own clothes, at least.