The True and Scandalous history of the Lords of Aether, Part the tenth – a consideration of scoundrels and traitors

28 June 2013

Now, when I say scoundrels and traitors, we all immediately think of Leach, that vile lump of horse droppings, ones not fit to manure my roses. But he’s not the only wen to have sprung up, pus-bearing, on the face of the Lords of Aether club. Back in the days of Good Queen Bess (and I don’t mean by that Lord Anthony’s predecessor as head of the organisation, who had a worrying predilection for whalebone corsets and lavender organdie), we were infected by a gentleman (Pfft!) who’d have made Christopher Marlowe look like a choirboy.

Imagine the scene. Old Willie Shakespeare is standing at the club bar, weeping into his pint of sack, bewailing the fact that his lovely boy’s being less than forthcoming with the old legover (plus ca change round here), when there’s the sound of a tucket, and Her Majesty appears, shaking her wig and all of a tizzy because some swine’s selling all her secrets to Jonny Spaniard.

Stopping only to wipe the froth off his beard with a convenient pair of hose (nothing changes here in terms of stray items of clothing, either), Will leaps up and says, “Bess, I’m your man.”

“Shakeshaft, you silly sod,” quoth she (sounding remarkably like my Poll when she’s acting posh), “what can a pen wielder do when my fine soldiers have failed to apprehend the scallywag? I was hoping one of the Lords of Spume,” (as they were called back in those benighted times), “would be here to oblige.”

“Sorry, old gal, they’ve all gone to the bareknuckle event. Like to see a bit of flesh get pounded. There’s just me here, being Jacques-all-alone with my pint, and…” at which point he makes a flourish with his cloak and sends sack flying everywhere, “I may be a poor thing but I am thine own to command.”

Bess sighs and shakes her pearls. “All right, old cock. Sort the blighter out and I’ll hire your company for a play. Fat knights getting into scrapes or some such rot.”

Well, our Will’s delighted. It’s only when he’s finished his drink he realises he’s in a bit of a hole. He’s told Her Majesty he’ll ferret the traitor into the light and if he don’t he’ll be losing his head. Literally. At which point fate takes a hand, deus ex machina like, as my Poll would say. Marlowe himself appears, large as life, and twice as lewd. Right at home with the Lords of Spume, given his penchant for shift lifting and rapier thrusting.

“I heard you promise the old gal you’d do the business,” he said, twirling his codpiece. “Want a hand?”

Now, old Will had a soft spot for Kit, so he says, “Abso-blooming-lutely old cock. Got a trail for us to follow?”

“Oh yes,” says himself with a sly grin. (I know it was a sly grin because old Will wrote all this up and left it in the vaults.) “Come with me to the Mermaid Tavern. And bring your sword. This is one occasion when your quill won’t be mightier than your steel.”

To be continued…

Arrival and Departures

23 June 2013
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If Nash had been the sort of man who paced, he’d have worn a hole in his Aubusson carpet that morning. Instead, he stood staring out his cabin’s lone porthole at the passing clouds. The stillness of his body belied the fury that raged within it.

“You know, brooding about your last flight as an Imperial Sky Commander won’t fix what’s wrong on the Lucky Penny,” Jack commented as he picked up his coffee cup.

Nash ground his teeth together in frustration. He sometimes wished he didn’t have the volatile emotions his Italian genetics had bestowed upon him. Normally, the cool logic of his English genes held his Italian side in check. However, the escalation of odd and coincidental events over the past year had gone from being suspicious and annoying to infuriating and dangerous.

When the events that had taken place on the Connaught arranged themselves to lead to the court martial of himself and every crew member who stood beside him, he’d been angry but because of Jack’s warning, he’d known to expect it. He’d known that he’d been set up. Since he already had the Lucky Penny, taking to the air in pursuit of answers as to why he and his crew had been set up had been a foregone conclusion. Apparently, whoever had arranged the events of that trip to the Russian Barrens had known he would do exactly that. At least one of the crew members who had been court martialed alongside him had done so in order to retain his place as one of Nash’s trusted crew. And he was a spy.

“Who the hell is behind all of this, Jack?” he growled, his voice low and angry. “You must have some idea.”

With a sigh, Jack set his coffee cup down. “I do, but I’m not at liberty to say as yet. Perhaps when we’re on the ground, at your father’s palazzo.”

Nash snorted. He doubted Jack would tell him anything. His lover was many things, but forthcoming was not usually among them. He knew, as Anthony may not have, that Jack’s plea to his former lover for help wasn’t quite on the up and up. Jack had some idea of who was behind Nash’s kidnapping, but he had no idea where Nash was or who exactly had snatched him. Anthony’s brilliant idea to have Shelley impersonate Nash had turned up invaluable information for Jack about who had been behind Nash’s brief incarceration. And if anyone knew who had been behind the court martial of the Connaught’s crew, it was Jack.

“I know that expression. You don’t believe me.” Jack smiled crookedly. “You’re wise not to, but I honestly will come clean very soon. The situation is rapidly becoming one I need assistance with and there is no one I trust more than you.”

Suppressing an eyeroll, Nash cocked up one brow. “Anthony?”

Jack heaved a sigh. “Yes, very well, I trust him too, just not nearly so much as I trust you. For God’s sake, I love you, Nash. I don’t love Anthony.”

“At least, not any longer.” Nash couldn’t keep the sarcasm from his voice.

“You’re in a mood, aren’t you?” Jack’s expression held a tinge of regret. “Look, me being completely honest with you about the events that have taken place recently won’t bring that poor dead boy back. He allowed himself to be seduced by whoever the spy is and he paid the price with his life. It’s not as if those sorts of things don’t take place every day on Bird Cage Walk. Young men seeking to liaise with another man risk much, including unfortunately, their lives. Even if I had told you everything I know we could not have prevented that boy from being seduced, used and murdered. I’ve no idea who your spy is.”

“I don’t like having my suspicions regarding a mole proven correct,” Nash grumbled.

“Of course you don’t.” Jack stood and crossed the room to stand behind Nash, rubbing his groin against Nash’s buttocks. He spoke softly into Nash’s ear. “Look, there are things we can do when we reach Venice. In fact, if we didn’t do them, it would seem suspicious.”

“What then?” Heat rose in Nash’s body but he refused to give in to his libido.

“When we arrive, dismiss anyone who was not part of your crew on the Connaught. I’ve no idea if any of them are also spies but I would hazard a guess that least one is working for our enemy,” he whispered. “Give them a nice salary and fare back to England. Let them know that due to the murder, it’s for their own safety.”

“Then what?” It took all of Nash’s concentration not to thrust his arse back into Jack’s hard body.

Jack nuzzled Nash’s ear. “We get on with the business of visiting your father. I’m sure he can add to what Shelley’s told us of the blade that killed your young crewman.”

“We don’t know that the blade killed him,” Nash pointed out. “Silsbury was correct. The body smelled of aether. That’s quite odd. We’ll have to have the body examined. I’m sure my father has someone who can perform an autopsy in secret.”

“Very good. We will let your father handle the authorities. I’m afraid all of the crew will be interviewed, but I’m sure none of them will have any information to impart to the Carabinieri. Our spy is very good.”

A soft, but firm tap on the door had them both spinning away from the port hole. “Enter,” Nash called out.

The door opened and Ivar flashed them a brief smile. “We’re approaching Venice, sir. We’ll be at your father’s dock within the next twenty minutes.”

Nash sighed and exchanged a glance with Jack. “Thanks, Ivar. My father will have someone awaiting our arrival. You’re to let him know what’s happened so he can report to my father immediately. We’ll all stay on board until the Carabinieri arrive. Please let the crew know that the authorities will wish to speak with them as we disembark. Also, please bring me a list of the crew who were not on the Connaught with us. We will be sending them home to England for their own safety.”

Surprise glittered in Ivar’s eyes for a moment and then he grinned. “Good idea, sir. I’ll bring that list to you right away.”

The door closed, leaving Nash and Jack alone.

“I’ll want to watch the departure of the crew that’s not staying,” Jack murmured. “It should be interesting.”

Nash snorted again. “It will be more interesting if you don’t see anything out of the ordinary.”

Jack walked over to the porthole and looked out. Nash’s gaze traveled the length of his lover’s body, wishing not for the first time that their trip was pleasure and not business.

“This is the first time I’ve ever dreaded my arrival in Venice.”

A chuckle escaped Jack. “I’ve no doubt you’ll get over your discomfiture soon enough.”

Nash fell back on the faith his father so relied on. He closed his eyes on a tiny, brief prayer to God and the saints. Whatever they faced in Venice, they wouldn’t face alone, but he still asked for a little divine intervention to keep them all safe, especially his danger addicted lover.

With their arrival in Venice imminent as well as the departure of half the crew, Nash felt certain that something would occur to flush more clues or even the mole out into the open. So much had happened that he knew the subversive nature of it all had to be on the verge of becoming exposed. Their enemy would either be revealed to them through the clues or would reveal himself. Either way, Nash knew he needed that prayer.

The True and Scandalous history of the Lords of Aether, Part the ninth

31 May 2013
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My thanks go to Poll for holding the fort again. She’s a fine gal, even if she seems a sight too fond of clasping young Farrell to her bosom in a way she insists is just maternal. Poor lad – I’m never sure he’s able to breathe in there.

Summer is a-coming in, loudly sing Cuckoo and all that. I’ve previously alluded to the sap rising, but when summer bursts into full bloom it’s more a case of fully risen and getting sunburned round here. They get out on that roof garden without even a small picture of Her Majesty to cover their modesty and the next thing you’d know it’s roasted meat, seared veg and the crown jewels more like crown of lamb.

I accept that you’d think from reading my accounts that my gentlemen (those breeches ripping, thigh poking lumps of harumphrodites I work for) never do anything that can be seen in broad daylight, but maybe I’ve not presented an entirely rounded picture (even though there’s many an entirely rounded thing up on that roof garden). Summer also means cricket. You can imagine that my gentlemen get all excited at the thoughts of donning their flannels and college ties (usually in place of a belt, which is healthier than what they sometimes use them for) and flouncing around the field trying to look attractive.

Lord Anthony plays to win, of course. He’s a dashing bat, wily spin bowler and a nimble hand in the slips. Jack Starr, when he bothers, is the fastest bowler I’ve seen since Spofforth (but then he’s a fast piece of work at everything.) Nash, on the other hand is more interested in the sweet sound of leather on flesh than leather on willow. A real “smote them hip and thigh” sort of cove. Spence and Alexi are no mean hands in the middle order, fours and sixes flashing everywhere (which makes a change from what they usually flash).

You can imagine that they form a successful team and winning has become a habit. I’d wouldn’t say winning at any cost: they might be totally unprincipled in the service of Her Majesty (and in the service of getting their ends away) but when it comes to cricket they play scrupulously fair. No itching powder in the opposition’s boxes or pins in their pads. Never an LBW appeal unless it’s plumb in line and no trying to hit them in the wedding tackle. (I suspect the latter is motivated less by fair play than by the chances of inveigling some comely batsmen into bed with them after the post match pint of “Old and filthy”.)

And don’t think it’s all tea and scones. One of the ways they first knew that Victor was a scurrilous piece of herring poo was his shouting for a catch behind when the ball had clearly only come off the batsman’s pad. That and trying to bribe an umpire with promises of untold riches if he’d swing the decisions in his favour. Any man who could stoop so low needs must be a rogue.

Now, I must away as Poll says she’s going to help young Farrell break in his pads for the new season and I feel the need to supervise proceedings.

Appearances

3 May 2013
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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Smoke and Aether

26 April 2013
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Revelation – Part 2, by KC Burn

Emmett had been bashed on the noggin before and it hadn’t stunned him as much as Caleb’s revelation. After exchanging quizzical glances with Jack and Nash, he hustled Caleb back to his rooms and shut the door. He stared at the man he’d spent the night with… spent a wondrous, incomparable night with, but the sweet innocent in his sights did not conform to a man who committed burglary.  Even the abashed glances and fiery blush didn’t speak of a felonious man.

“Pardon me? Did you say that you had broken into my house?”

Caleb’s cheeks reddened further and he nodded.

“Were you… why would you… what…” Emmett blinked. He’d never been at such a loss for words. Last year he’d attended a mesmerist’s show and had seen several men act rather out of character, but he’d never heard of such a thing happening elsewhere.

“I’m really sorry.”

Emmett shook his head, still unable to process what Caleb had told him.  He paced the length of the room, taking deep gulping breaths.

“Emmett, please.”

He shrugged off Caleb’s hand and strode out into the sitting room. The stained carpet caught his eye, menacing and malignant.

“Emmett.”

Caleb had followed him out of the bedroom, a pleading expression on his face.

As suddenly as the previous night when he’d taken a swing at Nash, anger billowed up, hot and choking.  But that wasn’t anything next to the pain like his soul had been flayed open and doused in acid.

“Was this you? Was the break-in connected to this… this…” Emmett stabbed a finger at the ruined carpet, infused with the weapon meant to kill him.

No matter how early it was in the morning, he needed a drink. But now that Caleb had spent the night, could he trust anything in his rooms? How had he so monumentally misjudged a man who seemed more innocent and sweet than anyone he’d ever allowed this close.

Caleb paled and his eyes widened. “What?  Emmett, no. Please.” His fingers fluttered, as though he wanted to reach out and touch, but Emmett was glad he didn’t try.  Emmett wouldn’t have trusted himself not to flinch away.

With effort, he steadied his breathing and spoke, cold and low and even. “Then explain. Now.”

Wrapping his arms around himself,  as if seeking comfort, Caleb’s lip trembled and for a few moments the only sound in the room was the rhythmic cadence of their breathing.

“Please believe me. I had nothing to do with that.” Caleb waved his hand in the direction of the wine stain.

“So you said.”

Emmett couldn’t afford to crack. He’d interrogated spies in battle, fought against unimaginable odds, and he’d never once come so close to caving in to softer emotions. But Caleb brought out the best and worst in him and until he had an explanation, everyone on this ship could be at risk. He couldn’t let his growing feelings for Caleb blind him to the possibility of a traitor in their midst.

Caleb’s voice wasn’t steady, at all. “My uncle… he left enormous crushing debts when he died. Debts we didn’t know about and debts we were expected to repay.  My mother and brother look to me to support them, but I’m only a crafter of clockwork animals. It’s the only income I have. The only way out was marriage to an heiress. My brother knew how unbearable it would be for me to have to marry a woman, and offered to be the sacrificial lamb, but debts don’t attract heiresses. Being involved in a trade doesn’t attract heiresses. Forget the tailor, sometimes we didn’t have the funds for the fishmonger.”

Pausing, Caleb drew in a shaky breath, reaching out for a crystal tumbler and the decanter half-full of whisky. Emmett heart twisted, realizing how dire Caleb’s straits were.  Caleb had already poured out half a glass and raised it to his lips before the danger of what he was doing communicated itself to Emmett’s mind.

He leapt the feet separating them and knocked the tumbler out of Caleb’s fingers, amber liquid sloshing on the already ruined carpet.

“What the hell is the matter with you? Don’t you know that anything on this ship could be suspect?”

Caleb’s eyes widened and his whole body stiffened and shook. His already pale skin went almost transparent as the blood drained away. He stumbled back and fell on the settee, his mouth a white, compressed line.

In that second, Emmett realized his original instincts about Caleb weren’t wrong. He’d survived so much because of his sharply honed instincts and no matter what explanation Caleb had for his break-in, there was no way Caleb was a murderer. No way he could lie without his face giving everything away.

His conclusion was confirmed when he sat down and wrapped an arm around Caleb, who curled into his embrace and shook. When a couple of sobs made themselves heard, Emmett just held him tighter and waited. There was still some explanation required, but he was a hardy soul. Aside from Caleb trying to kill him or his friends, Emmett could handle anything.

A few minutes later, Caleb lifted his face from its hiding place in the crook of Emmett’s neck. His eyes were reddened and puffy but the tears were done for now.

“Thank you. I… I wasn’t thinking. You saved my life.” Caleb’s voice hitched and he swallowed heavily.

Emmett snorted. “Or I spilled some expensive whisky. I don’t imagine everything is poisoned, but something besides the bottle of wine last night might be.”

A quick glance at the carpet revealed nothing alarming, not like the acidic scorching of the poisoned wine.

“Still. Thank you.”

Emmett nodded but didn’t say anything else. He wasn’t quite ready to forgive and forget. Not when Caleb hadn’t finished his tale.

A flash of tempting pink tongue moistening Caleb’s lips almost distracted Emmett from the matter at hand.

“Anyway, when I met you that night at the ball, you reminded me so much of my uncle. Arrogant, entitled, and only interested in your own pleasure, no matter if it had unintended consequences for someone else.  And… and…” Embarrassment burnished Caleb’s cheeks yet again.

“And?” Emmett prompted after Caleb’s gaze started darting around the room.

“And I hated you.”

The words sliced through Emmett like a cutlass, but Caleb’s fingers stroked along his jawline, softening the blow.

“Don’t misunderstand. I wanted you. And I realized later it wasn’t you I hated, but the way you reminded me of my uncle.  Anyway, I thought that someone with so much maybe wouldn’t miss a little something, and I could appease the hate I felt.”

“Then my dogs scared you off.”

Caleb let out a watery chuckle. “Well, partly. But I’d broken into your workroom. I couldn’t steal from a fellow crafter.”

“That didn’t make you any warmer the next time I saw you.”

“I didn’t want to like you. But I was growing to.”

“I thought someone was after my invention.” Emmett frowned. He was certainly glad to know this had nothing to do with the eyes he’d felt following him periodically since his return. His Caleb didn’t have the ability or the cunning to hide as their foe had.

He took a deep breath. “So you don’t hate me any more?” He wasn’t sure he could bear the pain if that were still true.

“No, oh, no. I lo…. I mean… I like you very well.”

Emmett kissed him soundly. He was fairly certain he knew what Caleb had been going to say, but this wasn’t the time to press. If he was going to hear that from someone he felt as strongly for, it wasn’t going to be here, in the midst of all this chaos.

“I like you very well, too, my Cal. When we get back, we’ll see what we can do about those debts of yours.”

Caleb shook his head frantically. “No. That’s my problem to solve. I’m not with you for that.”

Emmett smiled. Somehow, Caleb hadn’t yet figured out how determined he could be, even after his single-minded pursuit of the man.

A yawn split Caleb’s face, and Emmett’s smile got wider. “Energetic night, wasn’t it?”

Caleb blushed again, but nodded. For some, it tired them right out, but bedroom athletics with a willing and active partner, as Caleb had been, energized Emmett.

“Why don’t you go back to bed? It’s quite early still.”

“What about you?” Caleb asked around another yawn.

“I’ll go for a walk on the deck. Perhaps have a smoke. Consider our next steps. Figure out how to explain this to Jack and Nash.” If only they hadn’t been present for Caleb’s confession. Perhaps they’d think he’d been hoodwinked by a clever bottom boy, but Emmett was more than willing to trust his own instincts over any one else’s.

“If you’re sure.”

Emmett dropped another kiss on his lips. “I’ll wake you later. Make sure you’re naked.”

Caleb shivered, this time in a good way, and he smiled at Emmett before trotting back to the bedroom.

In Flight by Lex Valentine

The motion of the airship during the night had kept Anthony from a deep sleep. He’d tempered his restlessness by keeping Shelley snugged close to his body. Having his lover close for an entire night was an extravagance Anthony rarely indulged in. In the past, back in the days when he took for granted the exchange of money for passion, it had seemed wrong to spend the entire night with Shelley. Lately, since he’d begun to question not only the money but his relationship with his lover, he’d also developed a deep seated yearning not to leave Shelley’s bed, not to leave Shelley.

Every time he’d stayed the entire night, Shelley seemed to relish it, wrapping his lithe frame around Anthony’s larger one as they slept. Despite the general soppiness of such behavior, Anthony actually enjoyed cuddling with Shelley. He’d always felt that the affection in such actions was something both he and Shelley had had little enough of in their lives. And who the hell could go their entire life without affection? Humans craved closeness with other humans. Anthony knew that to be a scientific fact. He also knew that deep inside, he craved being with Shelley. Not just for sex but for companionship.  Anthony honestly didn’t trust many people and after their recent razor play, he realized that he trusted Shelley more than any other person he knew.

With a soft snort, Shelley flung himself onto his back, arms and legs spread wide, a small smile curling his mouth as he slept. Anthony grinned. His lover’s abandoned pose spoke of Shelley’s own trust, a notion that sent heat and pleasure spiraling through Anthony.

Since Shelley now took up the lion’s share of the bed, Anthony decided to get up and use the water closet and perhaps grab a breath of pre-dawn air. He slipped from between the silk sheets and padded silently into the bathroom. It was small but luxuriously appointed. Fig had checked it out when they arrived and played with the water taps for a few moments, apparently astonished at the hot water that poured from the spout. Anthony had enjoyed watching the young man’s surprise at finding such luxuries aboard an airship.

Once he’d relieved his bladder, washed his hands and face and brushed his teeth, Anthony emerged from the bathroom and pulled on trousers, covering his chest with a rich brocade robe that Shelley had bestowed on him for his last birthday. Walking softly in his leather slippers, Anthony moved to the door, glancing over his shoulder at Shelley sprawled in hedonistic abandon in the center of the bed and Calfiglio curled into a plush blanket on the chaise in the corner. Even though there was another bedroom, Fig refused to sleep away from his master and Anthony couldn’t blame him. With a smile, he slipped from the room

The salon had been cleared of their dinner dishes and glasses, the carpet swept and the tables returned to their highly polished finish by a silent steward of Nash’s. Anthony turned the polished brass handle of the door and pulled it open, stepping into the quiet corridor. He glanced at the other three doors. Behind one slept Jacob Silsbury and his friend. Behind another lay Emmett Montgomery and behind the last door slept Jack and Nash.

Frowning, Anthony turned away from the interior of the ship and headed out to the rail to watch the sun rise. He didn’t want to think about what might be happening behind any of the other bedroom suite doors on the airship. It was none of his business anyway.

He leaned on the rail and watched thick clouds of fog drift past. A lot had happened recently giving him the sense that the world was changing more than in just his small corner of it. Yes, Jack had returned to his life, but not as his lover. Yes, he’d finally made a conquest of Spence, but it hadn’t really gone as expected. Taking the near virginal doctor hadn’t left him feeling triumphant. It had left him with a gut full of guilt and regrets. His jealousy over Emmett’s assignation with Shelley had shocked him to the core. If Emmett hadn’t been with Shelley, if Anthony hadn’t been eaten alive with jealousy over it, he admitted to himself that he probably wouldn’t have taken Spence up on his offer.

The personal upheaval in his life married to the facts of Nash’s kidnapping and a poisoned bottle of wine being delivered to Emmett, told Anthony quite clearly that something wasn’t right in his world. Being summoned to Venice by Italy’s Finance Minister for a masquerade, even though said minister was his lover’s father, seemed out of the ordinary as well. Everything that had gone on recently seemed extraordinary and as such, fraught with tension.

Anthony didn’t like feeling unsettled. He didn’t like the darkness that he sensed awaited them in Venice, the very city where he’d met Shelley. A trickle of apprehension slipped down his spine. What would this trip bring them? Danger? More questions? Or finally, some answers?

The scent of a cigar reached his nostrils just as the sound of a throat clearing pierced the early morning fog shrouding the airship. He turned to find Emmett leaning against the rail behind him.

“Good morning,” the earl said, his voice gravely from sleep.

Anthony nodded a greeting. “Good morning. Did you sleep well after the poisoned wine incident? Jack stopped in for a moment during dinner to tell us what happened. Have they found the culprit?”

“Eh, no and no.” Emmett smiled. “I didn’t sleep well because I was busy. And no, they’ve not found who poisoned the wine or the steward who delivered it. He must be on board though. Where would he go?”

“Where indeed.” Anthony eyed the other man cautiously. “You were busy last night?”

Emmett’s smile became that of a cat that had eaten the cream. “Yes. With Caleb.”

Anthony felt his eyes widen. “So the big game hunter has taken down his quarry?”

Now, Emmett’s smile disappeared, to be replaced with a fierce frown. “That’s no way to speak of the boy. He’s not prey.”

“No?” Anthony couldn’t help himself. He raised his brows as he gazed at the big game hunter. Baiting a man like Emmett wasn’t a good idea. Besides, Emmett was Nash’s friend and Shelley’s client. Anthony couldn’t say what had gotten into him, but clearly, the events of the past days had pushed him into walking a dangerous path that morning. And he just couldn’t find it in himself to curb his tongue and behave.

“C’mon, Emmett,” he murmured. “You know you originally thought of him as prey. I’ve seen you work the crowd at balls and at the club. I know how you operate.”

Fury lit Emmett’s eyes and Anthony didn’t blame the man one bit for his anger. In fact, he braced himself to feel the sting of it on his chin. Whether Emmett actually took a swing at him or not was entirely up to the earl. They stared at each other, tension stretching out between them uncomfortably as Anthony waited for the blow.

Smoke and Aether, by KC Burn & Lex Valentine

“Are you hoping if I blacken your eye, too, you’ll get some tender loving care from Shelley – for free?”  Emmett grinned at Anthony’s suddenly clenched fists, the cigar dropping to the deck. It was a low blow, to be sure, but well worth the turnabout.

This time, it wasn’t Emmett swinging first. He blocked Anthony’s blow and swung them around. He was in too good a mood and it was too damn early in the morning for a scuffle.

“Oh, calm down. We’ve got business to discuss. Jack and Nash are already awake and talking to the crew. We should probably join them.”

Tight-lipped, Anthony nodded.  “For the record,” he growled, “money has nothing do with my relationship with Shelley.”

Emmett shot him a cynical, disbelieving glance, and then looked down at the cigar rolling around on the deck. “Let’s have another smoke and stroll along the deck. We’ll start fresh.”

Like the calm before the storm, they strode along the deck, smoking and making small talk – steering clear of their lovers’ attributes, of course.

A pile of canvas – presumably for repairing the dirigible’s envelope – lay haphazardly in a corner.

“I’ll have to tell Nash he needs to keep his ship in better order.” Anthony kicked at a stray fold of fabric that extruded out into their path.

Emmett gasped and choked on a tendril of cigar smoke. “I’m not sure it’s Nash’s fault.”

He pointed at the hairy leg that had been revealed.

“Well, he’ll need to reprimand his crew for getting too foxed to find their quarters.”

Sniffing the air, Emmett realized more than cigar smoke scented the area. He was all too familiar with the smell of death.

“He’s not passed out. He’s dead.” He sent the stump of his cigar over the railing.

Anthony’s eyes rounded and he also flicked his cigar over the side.  “Help me with this canvas.”

The two of them folded back the canvas, revealing one of Nash’s crewmen. A dagger with a narrow handle had been plunged to the hilt in the man’s chest, a small patch of blood, dried to a dark ochre, framed the entry wound. Likely a stiletto of some sort, as they were designed not to attract attention as great gouts of blood were likely to do.

Then Emmett got a good look at the dead man’s face. “Good heavens. That’s the man who brought me the poisoned wine!”

He glanced at Anthony. There wasn’t only one traitor aboard – there must be another. Obviously, the man who had poisoned the wine had killed the steward so that under questioning, he could not divulge who’d given it to him to deliver. Emmett would swear on his mother’s grave that it wasn’t Caleb or one of the other Lords of Aether who’d killed the steward, which meant Nash’s vaunted crew was a point of liability. He bent over the body and tested the temperature of the flesh at the dead man’s wrist.

“I wouldn’t be half surprised if he was killed right after he brought me the wine.”

“Anthony, there you are. Nash has been looking for you. You know I hate to have my sleep disturbed.”

They both turned at the sound of Shelley’s voice.

Artfully disheveled and dressed in an extravagant velvet robe over loose, flowing silk trousers, the courtesan’s gaze went from each man to the dead man. “Oh, my, gentlemen, what have you done?”

“Nothing, as you well know.” Anthony reached out to draw Shelley near, but he dodged the earl’s outstretched hand to bend over the body.

“We have a serious problem.”

“What do you mean?” Anthony slid up behind Shelley, who pointed at the hilt.

“See that engraving?”

Emmett stooped to view the symbol better.  “Looks like a Freemason symbol, although it’s quite faint.”

Shelley shook his head. “Not Freemason. Carbonari.”

“The Carbonari?” Emmett had heard the name, but couldn’t recall any information about them.

“An Italian secret society. Assassins and revolutionaries, for the most part, but they were supposedly eradicated over fifty years ago.” The thoughtful expression on Shelley’s face didn’t deceive Emmett and he doubted it had fooled Anthony either. Something about the symbol on the blade worried Shelley. “If the Carbonari are truly behind this, poisoned wine is the least of our worries.”

Anthony stood. “Is it coincidence that this particular man was killed by an Italian knife, just as you were summoned to Italy?”

The three of them just stared at one another in silence. How was it possible there was any connection to their mission? The odds against it being a coincidence were monumental, but not entirely impossible. There was no real answer to that question just yet, but the murder was an additional reminder that they weren’t on a pleasure trip.

With a brief smile for Emmett and an exchange of speaking glances with Anthony, Shelley left to find Jack and Nash, leaving Emmett and Anthony with the body.

“This isn’t how I envisioned this flight would go,” Anthony said on a sigh, nudging the dead man’s foot with the toe of his slipper.

Emmett didn’t bother to comment. He didn’t know tuppence about Nash and Shelley’s relationship with their father but obviously they would have to decide whether to inform him of the murder. Informing the Italian authorities was probably a completely separate concern. Doing so might create undue delays with suspicion leveled on them without cause, especially if an Italian secret society was involved.

He and Anthony stared down the gangway Shelley had taken. Apparently, they both wished for Nash’s speedy arrival. The level of danger surrounding them could not be dismissed casually. Once the body had been dealt with, Emmett wasn’t leaving Caleb’s side. The man didn’t have nearly his wealth of experience in fending off attackers and there was no way he was allowing anyone to damage his Caleb. Not even if it meant murder.

Nash burst out onto the gangway with Jack only a half step behind him. They stopped beside the body and Nash jerked the canvas away from the nude form. He cursed in Italian.

Jack rubbed his chin in a typical English gesture. “Now, love, don’t get so wound up.”

“Fuck you, Jack.” Nash’s fury flashed from his eyes.

A smile curled the lips of the Imperial spy. He looked at Anthony and then stared at Emmett. “I gather he served you the poisoned wine?”

Emmett nodded briefly, anger surging to the surface again. Jack cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips.

“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you lot, but why this man’s dead isn’t nearly as interesting to me as why the devil the poor fool’s stark bullocks naked.”

A sniff came from behind them. “Aether.”

As one, they all turned to find Jacob Silsbury standing there blinking in the newly risen sun, as placid as if he saw cadavers every day before breakfast.

“I love the smell of aether in the morning.” He smiled at them angelically then wandered back down the gangway into the airship.

“Took the wind out of your sails,” Emmett muttered to Jack, somewhat pleased that someone had. “Now, can we decide what to do with the body so I can go back to bed?”

The True and Scandalous history of the Lords of Aether, another digression

29 March 2013
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Hello, my old cock sparrows. Poll here. Now, before you jump to conclusions, I have to say that the daft old sod Beare isn’t three sheets to the wind again. He and Spence have gone off on some secret mission, one they couldn’t even tell me about. “Lips sealed, old girl,” he said, as he donned his steel lined bowler and whipped his sword stick under his arm. Must be serious stuff.

Of course, those of us who are left behind need to make the best of things, not sit fretting, and there’s always work to be done. An opportunity to get behind Beare’s desk and give it a good dusting, for one. And if anyone’s fretting, it’s the silly old tart himself. He hates leaving the running of the club to anyone, especially when the “anyone” is young Farrell. He’s a good lad, with extremely pinchable cheeks at both ends if you get my drift, and Beare’s been teaching him the ropes this last year. He’s proved himself capable, but there’s always the worry that such a comely young piece will make himself a target for Victor, who could never resist a pert behind nor a twinkling young eye.

I promised I’d keep an eye on the young sprat—a nasty job but someone has to do it—and ensure his virtue is kept intact. I’ll keep the same wary eye on the club’s safe, wine cellar and collection of unusual postcards. You never know where introgressive specimens like Victor will try to strike next. When I see him, I can see where Darwin got his ideas from. More monkey than man. Anyway, I’ve got the keys to all three on my ring and anybody who wants to go poking around will have to apply to me.

Talking of poking around, spring’s in the offing, although with this flipping cold she’s a long time showing her hull on the horizon. In April the sap rises and so does many another thing round here, and when I say that spring and beds feature in many a man’s imagination I don’t mean the season and flowers. The squeaking and creaking that goes on here all hours of the day and night takes some believing.

“What’s that noise, Poll?” Farrell asked me, this time last year when thoughts had turned to oats and the spreading of them. “Have we got mice?”

“We have not,” I replied, irate at the implication.

“Oh. Maybe I should go and investigate.”

“Don’t you dare. I promised your mother when you brought her here for Mothering Sunday that I’d preserve your innocence and preserve it I will if I have to put bromine in their brandy and take a pair of pliers to their nethers.” I shook my feather duster at him. “When the springs are creaking, don’t go peeking.”

“But…”

“But me no buts. You’ll see things you won’t understand.”

“Ah,” he said, as if light had dawned. “It’s to do with serving Her Majesty, isn’t it? Secret business.”

“It’s to do with queens indeed,” I said, wishing to tell him no lies. “And the affairs that only they understand.”

Bless him. Maybe I’d better go and pinch his cheeks right now…

Revelation

8 March 2013

Emmett came to complete wakefulness in a mere instant, a life-saving habit developed from battle-readiness that he’d never entirely shed. He held himself motionless, mimicking sleep until he’d fully cataloged his surroundings. Something wasn’t right, wasn’t normal. Beyond the clear memory of poisoned wine designed to kill him.

The rhythm of the airship engines, faint yet distinct, thrummed through his bed, but it wasn’t the vibrations that set his libido alight. His body was curled around a warm, slender, naked form. Crisp hair tickled the underside of his arm where he’d tucked the man in close and held him all night. There was the oddity. Sleeping with a lover. The identity of that lover clarified in his mind, almost immediately followed by a vision of the intense sexual play he and Caleb had enjoyed.

Emmett’s cock, nestled in the valley between Caleb’s fuzzy muscled cheeks, bucked as though seeking more of the same pleasure. But Emmett was master of that particular vessel, and although he berthed it more firmly against Caleb’s backside, he refrained from moving enough to bring Caleb to wakefulness. A period of reflection on this change of circumstance was warranted.

Trouble was, there was more to Caleb’s presence in his bed than mere carnal pleasure, no matter what his cock wanted. He so rarely took a second helping from any man, and yet, he rather thought he could gorge himself on Caleb and never have enough. The implications of that should have had him quaking in his boots… the ones that lay haphazardly amongst the clothes they’d shed the previous night without a care to creases.

Would Caleb get on with his dogs? Or George, his companion? If George had come along on this trip, the minute that wine had been established as poison, Emmett would have been locked up tight in his cabin with George standing guard. There wouldn’t have been an opportunity for the delightful culmination… no, culmination spoke of an ending not in sight.  The delightful climax of his dogged pursuit. A pursuit he couldn’t help feeling smug about. He’d spotted something precious in Caleb that very first moment at the ball, and he was more than pleased to have his instincts proved right.

For some reason, he’d always assumed spending the night with a lover would be akin to peers who’d been caught by a cuckolded husband or one obliged to do the right thing after compromising some husband-hunter. The panic of a newly captured herbivore or the relentless pacing of a caged predator, seeking any avenue of escape, were the emotions he expected. Not his current sleepy contentment that could easily tip over into animalistic passion.

A sneaking fear overshadowed his bliss, but not the fear he’d have thought even a fortnight past. No, if Emmett’s seduction had been successful even a few hours earlier, he might have offered a glass of that murderous swill to Caleb. Anger, hot and vicious, tore through his chest. Attempts on his life weren’t common but he’d experienced his fair share of near-death situations. His was a dangerous profession carried out in dangerous places. And he frequently ignored consequences when in the single-minded pursuit of his cock’s pleasure. But the possibility Caleb could have died as bystander to a nefarious plot against Emmett’s life, stranded as they were on this airship, wasn’t to be borne. Nash had better have a plan to find out who was responsible or by all that was holy, Emmett would face down each crew member, one by one if he must.

Caleb let out a sleepy questioning noise as Emmett’s arm tightened protectively around him. Just as suddenly as the anger flared to life, it disappeared, leaving another fire in its wake. A fire only Caleb could quench.

He gently maneuvered Caleb to his back, leaving Emmett above him, Emmett’s eager erection buffeting against Caleb’s morning hardness. Caleb blinked sleepily at him and those slumberous eyes combined with the unaccustomed scent of a newly-wakened man along with their convenient nakedness ignited the flame of Emmett’s desire into a blazing inferno.

Bending his neck, he sealed his lips over Caleb’s, pressing them open with his tongue before delving deep into Caleb’s mouth. The sudden shock of Emmett’s lusty attack wrenched a gasp from deep within Caleb before he moaned into Emmett’s mouth and bucked his hips up. Caleb’s fingers clutched at Emmett’s shoulders before his hands stroked down Emmett’s chest.

Emmett lifted his head and stared down into Caleb’s dark, glittering eyes and groaned. He wasn’t going to be able allow a leisurely exploration this time, either.

For someone who’d tutored many a willing man in the joys of sex and graciously offered his cock to multitudes of partners, a man such as Caleb shouldn’t stretch his control to near breaking. Then Caleb leaned up to lick at a nipple and Emmett forgot about trying to prove anything. Measured strokes wound them tighter, raising them ever closer to the pinnacle, cocks sliding easily in the wake of precum from two eager men.

Too close for anything approaching finesse, Emmett pressed his groin against Caleb’s while biting firmly into Caleb’s flesh where his neck met his shoulder. The sweet man shuddered beneath him and the slippery eruption warmed Emmett’s cock. His whole body stiffened as his cock throbbed, his own heated offering joining Caleb’s.

—-

Emmett and Caleb acted as each other’s valet and Emmett found assisting Caleb to get dressed was almost as erotic and appealing as undressing him, especially since Caleb give him shy little kisses between each garment, bestowed with blushes. Getting dressed had never taken Emmett so long, yet he looked forward to the same “ordeal” the next morning.  Or perhaps a late afternoon nap might be required. It would depend on how the upcoming confrontation with Nash went.

Finally attired and almost respectable-looking, wrinkles not withstanding, Emmett gave Caleb a pat on the bum before ushering him to the door.

“Come on. We’ve got a villain to find and apprehend.”

The shyness bled out of Caleb’s expression, replaced by a grimness that told Emmett Caleb might not have his battle experience but he was equally unhappy about the near-fatal turn of events.

They found Nash and Jack on deck speaking in hushed tones.

“Morning, gentlemen.” Nash offered a genial greeting when he noticed their approach.

“My, my. You two are up quite early, considering…” Jack’s sly smile left no doubt as to what he meant and Emmett knew without looking that Caleb’s blush had reappeared.

“You mean, after I was nearly poisoned? Worried about being murdered in my bed? Yes, it’s amazing I got a wink.” Indeed, his concern for Caleb should have kept him awake all night, if it hadn’t been for the temptation of Caleb’s body.  Which then promptly sent him into the sleep of the well-satiated. Nevertheless, the exaggeration wiped Jack’s smirk away, making it well worth the implication of a cowardly streak in his character.

“I’ve already set Ivar to investigate the crew. It makes me sick to imagine any of them would betray us like that.” Nash took a step forward, as though to get between him and Jack. Not that Emmett intended to brawl with either of them.

“I’d like to question them, also. After all, I am clearly a target. When I was last in Africa my quarters were searched, I’ve felt eyes on me ever since, my home in London was broken into and now this murder attempt.” Listing the recent grievances, which didn’t even take into account Nash’s kidnapping or any other suspicious incidents, made Emmett furious. He would rip the villain apart with his bare hands when he found him.

Caleb made a strangled noise, and Emmett turned to him. The flush suffusing his face was a choleric red, nothing like his earlier innocent blushes.

“Are you hurt?” Emmett stepped close to Caleb, hand on his face, checking for signs of injury. They’d eaten nothing since the previous evening, fearing tampering, and the ship confines would normally make it impossible for an assassin to use a distance weapon without being seen by one of them, yet Emmett well knew the days of that certainty may well be over. Especially if his invention came to fruition and found its way into the wrong hands.

“I… I…” Caleb’s eyes, filled with fear, searched Emmett’s face.

“What?” His voice lowered, wondering if he’d somehow unnerved Caleb beyond what he could bear.

“I’m sorry,” Caleb whispered. “I didn’t do anything to the wine, I swear.”

Emmett frowned. “Of course not, why would I think that?”

“Because I was the one who broke into your house.”

The True and Scandalous history of the Lords of Aether, Part the eighth – a robbery!

28 February 2013

Alas and rue the day when calamity hit the club and I, Savage Beare, defender of the scurrilous catamites, keeper of the key chain and general factotum, was unable to stem it. Last Candlemas, some villain gained access to the premises—probably by one of the large sash windows which had been opened after I had secured it for the night—and raided some of the private correspondence and papers kept here.

The first name which sprang to everyone’s mind, as they flapped about in their dressing gowns, looking at the mess the villain had left, was Leach. He’s just the sort of arse-pinching, muck raking, lickspittle pile of horse dung who hates the Lords of Aether so much he’d do anything to see them ruined. We had visions of him selling the material to the News of the World or some other equally disreputable rag, good for nothing but to wrap your pie and chips in. Her Majesty’s arm isn’t so long nor so omnipotent as to afford my gentlemen (I use that term with my tongue in my cheek) protection if all the goings on that go on here were to be detailed. Lord Anthony may have served his country nobly over the years but he’s also serviced more than a few chaps along his way and if even one tenth of those stories were revealed not only would it fill a whole edition, it would have middle England choking on its kippers. Even the naughtiest vicar, one who secretly burns with desire for his curate and holds a passion for the bishop, would be shocked at what his Lordship has held in his day.

But my Poll wouldn’t entertain that notion. Some of the most scurrilous material—just the sort of stuff Leach would have gleefully stuck down his corset and escaped with—was left behind. As was the club’s silver and a quantity of cash, so ordinary thieves were out of the question, too.

“Beats me, old girl,” I said to her, as we cleared up the mess and helped Lord Anthony get the papers back into order. “If you eliminate both a common burglar and old lardy-pants then what have you left?”

Poll looked at me, looked at Lord Anthony, rolled her eyes in that way she has that makes me think of goose-feather beds and her in them, and said, “Just as well the burglars weren’t looking for brains because they’d never have found any in your head, would they?”

I looked at Poll, looked at Lord Anthony, he smirked in that way he has that makes me think of him in a goose feather bed and doing who knows what and me being at least five hundred yards away at the time, and said, “I may not be the shiniest knob on the brass bedstead, but what, prithee, is it I am not aware of?”

“Savage, old fruit,” Poll replied, addressing me as though I were only seven and a half and couldn’t get to grips with my four times table, “what exactly is missing? Is it Spence’s scientific patents? Is it Shelley’s private diaries that his lordship purloined last year? Is it anything of importance or is it the blithering sea serpent stuff?”

“Sea serpent? Mr. Silsbury’s thesis?” I shuddered in recollection. Two whole weeks we’d had him going on about nothing else but the thing he’d seen off Dungeness, how it was the great primeval monster from the deep, a living dinosaur or some such. In the end, we had him dispatched off to Lyme Regis, ostensibly to look for fossils but really in hope that he’d be buried under a landslip. “Who’d want to steal that load of old twaddle? Someone running short of toilet paper, I suppose.”

“He has a rival.” Lord Anthony neatened a pile of papers and filed them away again. He has a deft hand, his lordship. Doesn’t bear to think what he does with it. “Chap called Dawson. Wants to usurp his discovery and get him elected to the Royal Society.”

“He wouldn’t get voted to the Royal Cambridge Music Hall with that load of old cr…crud. Plagiaristic, speculative nonsense.” I had a sudden pang of remorse. They may be a load of britches ripping mollies, but the  members of the club are my britches ripping mollies and nobody’s allowed to vex them. Except me. “What will he do when he discovers his loss?”

“Go and steal it back again, you old custard head. Just the sort of jape he’d want to get involved with. Look—his lordship’s gasping at the thought of the fun.”

I didn’t look. You never know what Lord Anthony’s gasping with. “Poll,” I said, weakly, “put the kettle on, will you, my dear? It’s all been too much.”

“Of course, old cock.” She said, smiling. “And I’ll find a bit of Dundee cake. Men need sustenance at times like this.” At which she winked…and I hoped that sustenance would keep me going through to bedtime.

Before the Dawn

8 February 2013
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Standing on the bridge watching the clouds roll past as the airship powered its way across Europe, Nash rubbed one wrist absently. Dawn had yet to break and here he was, still warm from his lover’s arms, fussing over his ship.

He had a difficult time choosing between Jack and the Lucky Penny. He loved flying, loved his ship. He loved Jack too and that was the problem. When he thought about his future, he couldn’t see himself without the ship or Jack. Both had become a part of him and he wasn’t entirely sure how that would translate going forward into a new century.

He and Jack shared a love of adventure and danger. They thrived on the rush. In the bedroom, that translated to nights, and sometimes days, of rather unusual sex. Nash glanced down at the slight red marks around his wrists. Being tied up was the least of it.

With a sigh, he checked all the controls on the airship. Everything was as it should be. His only worry was that damned bottle of poisoned wine. The wine indicated that someone on board was a spy. Nash hated to do it but he knew he’d have to speak with Ivar. Pulling his second in command off the running of the ship to have him investigate all new crew members went against the grain, but he didn’t have a choice. The only person he trusted on the crew to get to the bottom of the poisoned wine was Ivar.

Nash made a small adjustment to one of the controls in front of him. He frowned at the instruments, his mind only half on the flying of the ship.

The world had become a very dangerous place. Moreso than usual. Someone was working against the Crown and had some very highly placed co-conspirators if his kidnapping was anything to go by. And Nash was very sure that it was. He still had no solid reason for his kidnapping but he knew it stank of conspiracy. There had to be more to it than just riling Jack.

Giving in to his father’s summons wasn’t Nash’s usual way of dealing with Italy’s Minister of Finance. Normally, Nash ignored his father when he got too high handed and his father knew this. He figured Shelley wasn’t much different either. Neither of them had been very good at heeding their father’s dictates. For bastards, they were remarkably well treated and loved by their father and Nash really did love him in return just as he had some deep feelings for his half brother Shelley as well. He tended to keep his emotions to himself on both fronts though. It wouldn’t do for either his father or his brother to know that he cared very deeply for them. And in the current political climate, it appeared it would to be to all their benefits if the didn’t let the rest of the world know his weaknesses.

Turning from the bridge, Nash went in search of Ivar Delaney. The sooner he had Ivar investigate the crew, the sooner he’d know how that damned wine got in Emmett’s hands. He wished he had Beare along. The old geezer had a way of worming information out of staff like no one Nash had ever known. Except maybe Poll.

Shaking his head, Nash headed for Ivar’s cabin. Things were getting uncomfortable in ways he didn’t care for. He rubbed his wrist again. Damn Jack for reminding him of his captivity and the intrigue surrounding it. Now, he couldn’t just enjoy his flight. Now, his mind was filled with shadows and conspirators at every turn.

Fuck, he thought with resignation. He’d actually have to work from now on instead of just enjoying the sensation of flight. What a waste of a beautiful morning.

The True and Scandalous history of the Lords of Aether, Part the seventh – a new year begins and at last the pig’s bladder gets off the ground!

31 January 2013
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We’ve rung in the new, rung out the old, wrung out the dirty linen and brung in the cat. The year of our Lord eighteen hundred and ninety seven is upon us and it’s all change here. For one thing, they’ve actually got that overinflated pig’s bladder of a craft off the ground, defying both the laws of physics and good taste. I’ve never seen so much brass, gold leaf and gingerbread work on what’s supposed to be a fighting vessel. More like a tart’s four poster bed.

Not that I approve of these airships. I said to Poll, “If God had intended us to fly He’d have given us wings.”

To which she replied, “If God had intended you to be clever He’d have given you a brain. Seeing as he hasn’t we must assume it’s the Divine wisdom for you to be a numbskull.”

Poll loves that airship. Themselves (by which I mean the pox ridden, two faced, lascivious bunch of soused herrings I work for) gave her a guided tour of the thing when it was newly built. She didn’t stop talking about it for weeks. The walnut veneers, the polished metalwork, the hammocks. (I don’t want to think about what might go on in those hammocks. And what might hang out while it’s going on.) Given half a chance she’d have been up there on it with them, but she turns a bit peculiar with heights. She was dizzy when we scaled The Monument and gets seasick on the Rotherhithe ferry.

I suppose we must count our blessings, though. If the buggers (I use that term literally) are up there they can’t be down here getting under my feet and causing trouble. They’ve tried to launch before, of course. And a right mess it turned out. Sabotage, they said, probably of Victor’s origin, but he was in Reading Gaol at the time, doing a bit of bird for importuning unfortunate young telegraph boys, so I suspect the old git was innocent. For once.

Still the contraption wouldn’t get off the ground, no matter how much they stoked up the engine or wound the elastic or whatever it is they do to these things. Lord Anthony was turning the air blue(I learned some words that even my Poll couldn’t put a meaning on) and Spence was pulling out what little hair he has.

My theory? In a word, Jack. They will let him tinker about (in fact he tinkers with a sight too many things in a sight too many places – I have to have the mattresses replaced, so I should know). I suspect he tinkered a bit too far and caused an unresolved dislocation of turbine resonance leading to magnetospheric turbulence and lack of escape inertia. Or, in layman’s terms, he pushed the button that says, “Caution. Do not push this button.” Either way the airship sat on the ground like a big pair of deflated knickers tied to a washing basket and going nowhere. Eventually they sorted it. Not through Spence’s calculations, reams of paper though they took up. Not through Lord Anthony’s efforts with screwdriver and spanner. What’s the solution when all else fails?

Poll.

Poll took a monkey wrench and belted the engine one. Now it’s up and away, with all the old queens tossed up in the proverbial blanket heading off to serve Her Majesty in the air as they do on land. Rule Britannia!

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