The fifth of January was a typical blustery Wellington day. Grey clouds scudded along the hills across the bay and whitecaps dotted the harbour.
“I should have worn my good coat,” said Camilla, rubbing her arms in a rather unladylike fashion. Silas was giving her a disapproving look. “Call this summer?”
“It’s warm enough, Cam,” Palamedes said. He’d been counting down the days since the Princess Alexandra had wired in from Fiji, and now she was finally in port he didn’t have much patience for anything else. “You hate it when it gets hot, anyway.”
“If it’s going to be summer, it should be summer, that’s all.” Camilla nudged him with an elbow. “Stop being nervy at me.”
Palamedes knew how he acted when he was nervous and this wasn’t it, and he opened his mouth to tell Camilla so, but whatever he’d meant to say was knocked out of his head when a woman appeared at the top of the gangplank. She made her way down slowly, arm held by a much taller gentleman as if she really needed the support. Palamedes had seen a photograph, once, a class portrait from Shrewsbury College, but all that had told him was that Dulcinea Septimus was frail and white, washed out by a dark dress. He hadn’t thought she’d be this beautiful in person. He didn’t care – it was her mind he wanted to meet her for. But – she was beautiful, rose-blossom cheeks and eyes you could drown in. It was just – unexpected.
“Close your mouth,” murmured Camilla. Palamedes ignored her, because he had a perfectly appropriate expression of welcome on his face, and stepped forward to greet Dulcinea. Miss Septimus. However, Camilla might not have been right about his open mouth, but she was right that nerves were dulling his wits; Gideon Nav, tall and brown and utterly careless of what anybody thought about her muscles or her name, got there first.
“You must be Dulcinea,” she said, just the way she would have if she were a young man at a ball. Palamedes resented it profoundly. “We’re here to take you up to the university.”
“Oh, thank you,” Dulcinea said warmly. All her vowels were perfectly rounded; Palamedes’ tongue felt dull and colonial in his mouth, and he hadn’t even said anything. “We’ll just need to wait for my baggage to come off the ship. Protesilaus, could you go and see where it’s got to?”
Her manservant nodded and lumbered off.
“He’s mute, I’m afraid,” Dulcinea said to Gideon with a charming smile. “Rubella.”
Silas inserted himself between them as if he had any right; Gideon shot him an openly dirty look. If Harrow had been here she would have dragged her off, but Harrow had remained up in Kelburn hunched over a book that couldn’t be brought into daylight.
Silas was implying that he was in charge of the entire project and would be pleased to assign Dulcinea some small task that would be appropriate to her womanly intellect – well, he didn’t say the last part but Camilla muttered it and she wasn’t wrong.
“We need all the help we can get,” Palamedes butted into the conversation, having had enough of Silas’ – everything. “Miss Septimus is more than qualified to provide it.” Dulcinea gave him a charmingly puzzled smile, and he realised he hadn’t introduced himself.
“I’m sorry – I’m Palamedes,” he said. “Palamedes Sextus. We...” What were you supposed to say to a woman you’d proposed to in writing and never met in the flesh? And who was looking at you like you were a stranger, having travelled halfway around the world to finally – no, for the work, not to meet him. He had to remember that.
Dulcinea studied his face for a second that felt like a lifetime, then nodded. “Oh, of course you are.”
Palamedes started to offer her his hand – they would be colleagues here – but she was turning. “And here’s our luggage! Goodness, that was quick.”
“I’ve got the others!” Gideon called from a few metres away. She was corralling two Chinese teenagers towards them – that had to be Jeanne and Isaac Chatur, who’d been due on the same ship. “Come on, I’ve had enough of standing around.”
“Yes, we should -” Silas tried. He was cut off by Gideon offering Dulcinea her arm. “This way.”
“Oh, thank you,” Dulcinea said. Palamedes was left there, his arm not even half-raised.
“For god’s sake,” said Camilla. “I hope you’re going to buck up now she’s here.”
The project was simultaneously a matter of deep secrecy, a matter of state import, and not funded for some of their most basic needs; they took the tram up to the college. Palamedes was reasonably sure that this was because whoever in the OSS had commissioned it had assumed they would all stay locked in their offices until they succeeded or worked themselves to death. This would perhaps have been possible if they’d been sent somewhere really remote, perhaps a farmstead on the Canterbury Plains, but apparently New Zealand was considered remote enough in itself. So here they were, packed sweatily into a tram. The space was shared with three sea trunks, some young men who were obviously students working on summer projects, and several Pākehā housewives holding Kirkaldies and Staines bags and giving the students – who were not quiet – disapproving looks.
“Why wasn’t there a car?” One of their new recruits – the young Chinese man – wanted to know. “I could run up this hill faster. I thought this was a proper city now – didn’t you have that exhibition this year?”
“I’ll race you, if you’re keen,” Gideon said immediately. “And shut up, you should see where I come from. This is the big city.”
Silas snorted derisively; of course he did.
“The college buildings in Dunedin are much better,” Palamedes said, feeling Dulcinea’s eyes upon him even though when he glanced over she was leaning back against the window, the picture of exhaustion. “And you don’t have to climb a hill to get to them.”
“But you have to go to Dunedin,” Gideon said, a glint in her eye, and they sparred lightly the rest of the way up the hill; it got the younger ones talking after a little while. Dulcinea maintained a fragile silence, blinking in interest as Jeanne and Isaac talked nervously about the danger the Japanese posed to Hong Kong.
“I really hope that what we’re doing here -” Jeanne began to say, but cut herself off as everybody – even Gideon - fell silent. Silas glared.
“We haven’t even told you where we’re staying yet,” Camilla said, to cover it. “I hope you like close quarters. The college doesn’t have a lot of room for visiting students.”
Palamedes glanced carefully around, but the real students were still talking noisily about cricket, and the housewives were comparing purchases.
Maybe they should have all gone to some sheep station; it would have been a lot less wearing on Palamedes’ nerves.
They stayed on the tram past the university, all the way to the house on Boundary Road. Jeanne and Isaac carried their own trunks down the narrow path and across the wooden bridge that curved around a small cliff. Dulcinea had to be carried herself, by her silent manservant. That put her higher than the railing; Palamedes shadowed him closely, and Camilla did the same in front without him needing to say anything.
Harrow met them scowling at the front door, and whisked Gideon away. Palamedes thought it was a scowl of concentration rather than anything else, but with Harrow it was very hard to tell.
“Tea in the front parlor in an hour!” he called after them. Gideon said something in Māori that could have been pleased or a taunt; Palamedes lacked the facility with the language to tell. Harrow waved a hand, which meant she’d heard, whether or not she would actually deign to attend.
“We should meet now,” Silas said.
“I’m sure Miss Septimus and Miss Chatur could use the time to freshen up,” said Palamedes. “And someone’s got to make the tea, remember?”
“Colum!” Silas called, stomping off. Well, that saved the rest of them some trouble, as long as the tea wasn’t poisoned. With those two Palamedes was never confident it wouldn’t be. Silas seemed perfectly capable of calling it a security measure and hopping on a boat back Home.
“No poisoning until we’ve succeeded,” Camilla said, coming up beside him. “I’m reasonably sure.”
Palamedes gave her a flicker of a grin. “That’s motivating.”
“For King and Country,” said Camilla, with a shrug.
“Not to take away from the seriousness of what we’re here for, but this is a delightful house,” said Dulcinea, when they’d gathered in the front parlor. It was cramped with all sixteen of them in there – Harrow was in attendance, after all. Professor Teacher hadn’t, but he usually met with them at the university, and had never accepted any of Magnus and Abigail’s invitations to dinner. Palamedes wasn’t entirely sure he ate.
“Isn’t it?” Abigail said, beaming at the implied compliment. “It was built for the dean of the humanities, when they established the college here; we’ve had it for twenty years. I could wish it was a little easier to get to, but that’s Wellington for you. Everything is up or down half a dozen flights of stairs.
“A bridge seems a reasonable trade, then,” said Dulcinea. She was cradling a cup of milky tea with fingers as white and perfect and fragile as bone china.
“You need to be careful on it in the dark,” Abigail’s husband Magnus admonished. A cup from the same set as Dulcinea’s – not a given in this house, they had the most hodge-podge collection of china – was rendered minature when he held it; he was tall and broad as well. “The railing needs replacing, but, well...our usual man shipped out two months ago.”
“Maybe some of us could set ourselves to it,” Silas said, noticeably glancing first at Palamedes, then Isaac, but not at Naberius or his own nephew. Of course.
“I thought you were all too important to the war effort to have time for that sort of thing,” Gideon put in, stirring the pot.
“We are,” said Judith impatiently. “So shall we proceed with introductions and then get on with our work?”
“Oh, please do,” said Dulcinea, laughing a little, then covering her mouth with a handkerchief; she was discreet, but there was a hint of red as she crumpled the handkerchief and tucked her hands together. “I think I know who everybody is, but it would be so much better to be sure.”
So they sipped tea and made introductions. Silas tried to direct them, but even he was quelled by the fact of it being Magnus and Abigail’s house; his proper ways tripped him up now and again. Palamedes tried not to be too obviously pleased by it, but Camilla gave him a glance brimming with amusement – at least if you knew Cam.
The thing that always struck Palamedes about their little group was how many women there were, compared to before the war had started. It was true everywhere you went these days, but in the context of the academy – he still felt like they were missing something. (Not that he said that aloud. Camilla would never let him hear the end of it.)
Judith and Marta were officially the project’s secretaries and in practice its administrators, of everything logistical that wasn’t the actual work. When your logistical needs were as odd as theirs, and in a remote colony at war to boot, fulfilling them took something like magic. Palamedes was as admiring of their skills as he was personally unappreciative of their stiff attitudes. Beth and Ianthe were anatomists, and drew Dulcinea out into serious medical conversation almost immediately. Naberius worked with them, but was shushed by one or the other nearly every time he opened his mouth; he sat there with a sulky sneer. Isaac and Jeanne, as their much-awaited engineers, spent more time listening than talking. Abigail and Magnus were the guardians of their historical texts, overlapping at a certain period with Palamedes’ and Camilla’s classical expertise. Harrow was the practical expert to their theory, the daughter of two well-known archaeologists who couldn’t be brought away from their work even by the war effort. Gideon was – it would be incorrect in every way to call her Harrow’s shadow; but shadowing Harrow was what she did. Palamedes did not suspect her of academic yearnings – he’d only ever caught her reading pulp novels with lurid covers (thought ‘caught’ was also the wrong word there, as she evidenced no sense of shame about it, and Palamedes wasn’t trying to invoke one.)
Silas and Colum – perhaps his nephew, perhaps not, nobody cared to ask further – were from the OSS, sent out from England and unhappy about absolutely everything in New Zealand, beginning with the people, continuing with the food, and with no obvious finish. Silas would clearly have preferred a working group of good Englishmen for their perilous research, in both particulars. Instead he had engineers from Hong Kong, a historian from German Samoa, two classicists of French Lebanese heritage – never mind that it was their mutual grandfather who had immigrated to the goldfields – and, worst of all, two native women. Colum presumably agreed with him, but then agreed with his superior on everything, so one couldn’t expect anything different.
Dulcinea smiled and shook hands with everybody, but she grew paler and paler as the afternoon wore on. It was stuffy in here, despite the blustery day. Palamedes caught Camilla’s eye and switched chairs.
“You look -” he began, but Dulcinea winced, and put a hand to her head. “I am so very sorry, but this headache isn’t going away.” She stood, pushing herself up on the back of her chair; they’d had to bring in some from the dining room, to seat everybody. Palamedes put his tea down, but by the time he’d done that Gideon was already there.
“An arm to your room?” she offered. “We’ve got you on the ground floor.”
“Oh, yes please.” Dulcinea took Gideon’s arm. Palamedes let them go. It wasn’t as if – he didn’t have any right. He glanced over at Harrow, but she was too deep in a technical discussion with Abigail about site preservation to notice her friend – assistant – whatever Gideon really was – had gone.
Camilla stole the half-biscuit lurking in Palamedes’ saucer. He stole it back.
“It’s hard to believe in the war, on afternoons like this,” she said, looking around at everybody sipping tea and making conversation. “Except that’s why we’re here.”
“Except,” Palamedes agreed.
“I believe in the war,” Gideon said, re-appearing and sprawling into the chair Dulcinea had vacated. “I’d be on a train to Trentham this afternoon, if I thought they’d take me.”
“Why?” Palamedes asked her. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to serve his country, but – putting on a lemon-squeezer hat and picking up a rifle hardly seemed the optimal way to do it.
“Oh, you know,” Gideon said. “Glory, duty, because it’s sweet and proper. The usual.” She glanced at the doorway. “The admiration of blushing maidens. Wouldn’t you rather be off with your mates in Italy or somewhere, instead of stuck indoors?”
“Don’t be shocked, but no.”
“Mr Sextus,” Gideon said, her brown eyes twinkling. “I never would have guessed.”
“I have a translation to finish,” Palamedes said, standing up. “The war isn’t waiting for anybody.”
They were all back to work the next day, despite the fact that it was the weekend, and still the Christmas period, if that was something that mattered to you. Palamedes had never been personally religious and didn’t think anybody else on the project was; you couldn’t be and be on the project, surely.
Dulcinea plunged into work with Beth and Ianthe, in some ways the real guts of the thing – somewhat less than literally; the rats they were working on didn’t have any left. They had their own laboratory space, so the people working with delicate paper and old texts didn’t have to worry about blood on their manuscripts. It also meant that Palamedes didn’t see her, except at meals, which she attended infrequently. He tried not to keep count of when she did, and failed. He tried not to watch her eat, and succeeded – most of the time.
Isaac and Jeanne moved into the room that Palamedes and Camilla worked in, at the college, so they could pin up their prototype sketches of simplified weapons, designed for bony fingers. Privately Palamedes considered that this was getting ahead of things, but they needed to prepare for success as well as failure. He sweated with Camilla in their dark room over bad Latin translations of Greek originals, trying to sift the plausible – the possible – from the everyday curses on rivals in love and unknowns who stole your towel at the baths.
“Someone stole my towel this morning,” said Camilla. “Probably one of the twins.”
“Do you have evidence for that?”
“No.” She wrote down a word, then scratched it out again. “But it just feels like something Ianthe would do.”
“Hmmm.” Palamedes couldn’t say he trusted her very far, either.
Gideon banged into the room; two desks over, Magnus jumped.
“I have been sent,” she said with an exaggerated sigh, “to see if any of you have anything from, and I quote, the Innsmouth text.”
“Not yet,” said Abigail. “We need to compare it to a couple more of the curse tablets.”
“That’s fine, I don’t really care why, Harrow can come and bother you herself if she wants to know that.” Gideon sauntered over to the window, where, if you stood in exactly the right place, you could see a sliver of blue summer sky – or you would have if they’d been home in Dunedin. It was probably still cloudy, here.
“Hey, the sun’s out,” Gideon said, contradicting Palamedes’ internal pessimism. “We really need to go to the beach sometime. Get the ferry across the harbour. I hear it’s great.”
“That sounds like a very nice idea,” Magnus said approvingly, shaking out his hand. “We used to do that with the children.”
“When we show a little more progress,” Abigail added. “Or Silas will never allow it.”
Palamedes actually saw Gideon swallow back the words “but we don’t have to ask Silas”. Reticence wasn’t a natural look on her.
“Here,” Palamedes said, circling his final word choice; the dictionary didn’t entirely support it but it was abridged, the full volumes having been hoarded by one of the actual academics. “I’ve got that first translation for you, Mrs Quinn.”
“Lovely.” Abigail reached out; he passed it to her via Camilla.
“Give me fifteen more minutes on mine,” Camilla said.
“You know,” said Gideon, who was still staring out the window, “if anybody had told me that raising the dead involved this much paperwork, I definitely would have disguised myself and volunteered.”
Everybody looked at each other, words abruptly vanishing, then looked away; Magnus at his papers, Abigail shuffling books, Camilla industriously starting to clean off her pen, which had acquired a splatter of ink.
“I know, I know,” Gideon went on. “We’re not supposed to just say it like that. I like to remember why we’re here, that’s all.” She took herself out, with all her usual swagger.
“We aren’t really,” Magnus said, a long moment after the door had swung shut. “It’s just going to be...bodies. Not people.”
“Do we know that?” Camilla tilted her head. “Really?”
“I think we have to believe it,” said Palamedes. “Else, imagine the implications.”
Camilla bent her head back to her work. “Thanks – I’d rather not.”
Over dinner, Palamedes reflected again on what the situation must be in Britain, that it had seemed logical – seemed worthwhile – to round up a crowd of researchers from all corners of the Empire and set them to finding a way to battle German soldiers with the corpses of their own dead. Or the corpses of anybody’s dead, he supposed. He wasn’t sure if the fact that they had been sent to the furthest corner of the Empire to do the work (those who hadn’t already been here) argued for the idea that it was considered very important and had to be kept away from German eyes, or the idea that it was considered complete crackpottery and had to be kept away from the serious war effort. It was hard, sitting around the long table in Magnus and Abigail’s house, with their well-made but family-scuffed furniture, passing the gravy jug and topping off wine glasses, to believe in it.
He flexed his ink-stained fingers and considered the seriousness with which Harrow, Beth, and Dulcinea were discussing the flexibility of tendons. Listening to that, not so hard at all.
“I know you’re all mad for work, but do we have to while we’re eating?” Gideon said to Dulcinea, and then relented the minute Dulcinea blinked her long eyelashes at her. “Or, fine, I was finished anyway.”
“We really don’t have any time to lose,” Dulcinea told her earnestly, then coughed into her napkin. Palamedes fancied he saw a drop of blood. Gideon produced a handkerchief from some pocket her plain black outfit shouldn’t rightly have. Her hand lingered on Dulcinea’s as she handed it over.
Palamedes focused, very firmly, on his food.
“No, we don’t,” Harrow was agreeing with Dulcinea. “It should be working and it’s not.” Palamedes looked up to see her irately stab a piece of kuumara, and then stare at it. Harrow wasn’t a great eater. “I know it can. I know it.”
“I have a report due at the end of the week,” announced Silas. “It would be very helpful to have some progress documented.”
There was a pause as everybody turned to look at him; Silas had not made any friends.
“I’m certain we’ll have some,” Dulcinea said, very firmly, before anybody else opened their mouth.
“Well, the extra hands help,” Harrow allowed. She didn’t sound pleased to be doing so.
“We’re not hands,” objected Isaac, and they were frankly lucky the whole thing didn’t devolve into a food fight; Palamedes backed out at the earliest opportunity, and placated his bad temper with a new Ngaio Marsh novel.
He had nothing to be upset about; he wasn’t upset; Dulcinea had turned down his proposal, and owed him nothing; there was nothing between them but years of letters. Words, that was all.
Palamedes’ entire life was words.
He slept badly, woke Camilla up at the crack of dawn, and went walking with her up Tinakori Hill, where they could look out over the harbour. It was a clear still day – for now – and the peaks of the Kaikōura range were just visible to the south and west, the ghosts of the way home.
“If we make this work, and the war’s over by Christmas,” Camilla said, “do you want to go home, or are we going to go to Europe, like you always wanted? All the great archives?”
“Christmas is another year away now,” said Palamedes. “Anything could happen.”
“I hope it does,” said Camilla. “Or that something does. I’d hate to spend the war locked in a dark room, swearing at Greek translations.”
“That’s what we were doing before the war.”
“Exactly,” said Camilla. “Come on – breakfast’s going to be ready.”
“I’m going to go straight on to the college,” Palamedes said. “You can let them know.”
“Suit yourself,” said Camilla, and parted ways with him on Kelburn Road.
Two hours later, Palamedes took her by the arm and pulled her down two flights of stairs to one of the empty rooms where they wouldn’t be disturbed. The rooms had been occupied less than two years ago by students gone to take up arms; their ghosts still lingered in stray pencils and un-returned library books.
“Look at this,” he said, and showed her the writing pad he’d found, spattered with blood, in the rubbish bin. It was the blood that had caught his eye. It was the impressions on the pad that had kept it.
Camilla didn’t need any guidance; she held the pad up to the light, tilting it so the letters revealed themselves in shadows.
“I thought we were supposed to lock up all our notes at the end of the day,” she said. “I suppose if anybody’s snooping they could have found it. Is that what worries you?”
“It’s a summary of everything we know so far.” Palamedes tapped his foot on the floor. “As far as I know we don’t have anything like that, and I try and read everything.”
“Of course you do.”
“Someone’s keeping secrets.”
“You’re worried about...” Camilla hesitated, as if it was too absurd to say. “A spy?”
It did sound absurd, said out loud. “Should I be?”
Camilla opened her mouth, then closed it, and looked down at the pad. “We should tell someone. But...”
She grimaced, and so did Palamedes. Neither of them liked Silas, when it came down to it. And it was easy to figure out who he would accost - and accuse - first.
“Have you got a pencil?”
Palamedes took one off a desk and handed it to her. Camilla carefully shaded the writing into life. It was more damning the more of it was revealed; a specific emphasis on how far the project had got, a tone, even in brief notes, that took a critical outside view.
“I don’t suppose you recognise the handwriting,” he added. Handwriting was one of the things Camilla was a lot better at than him.
“That’d make it easy. No.”
“So someone who’s recently arrived...”
“Or someone who types everything up, or has it typed up for them; or someone who’s disguising their hand.” Camilla’s own hand hovered over the crusty brown blood spots. “Someone who’s cut themselves recently, that’s a good guess.”
Palamedes looked over his own hands, reflexively, and then Camilla’s, for a horrifying backward second of mistrust. Then he met her eyes, grey and amused, and remembered this was Cam, his cousin, who’d grown up with him and gone to university with him and given him her dry wit and almost inexplicable tolerance for his tendency to lose himself in writing, and he’d trust her anyday.
“I wish I knew more chemistry, to test this,” he said, pointing at the blood.
“We could ask...” Camilla started, then shook her head at the same time as Palamedes shook his. “Ianthe? Or Naberius? No.”
“Well, then,” Palamedes said. “It’s a mystery.” He reached out and folded the top sheet, carefully; the rest he tucked behind a desk. “Let’s hope we’re good at this kind, as well as the kind that comes in ancient texts.”
Palamedes spent the day trying to think who he could approach about this, and realizing that there was nobody he relied on in that way. It was an excuse, however, to approach Dulcinea. She might – there were questions he could ask. He went up two flights of stairs and along the corridor to where the biologists practiced their dark arts. Dulcinea’s mute manservant stomped past him, but didn’t even meet his eyes. He was followed by Beth and Ianthe, with their heads together. Palamedes picked up his pace; surely this was his chance –
Gideon bloody Nav was leaning in the doorway, saying “What do you even use those tiny scalpels for?”
Dulcinea laughed, low and warm. Palamedes came up behind Gideon to see her leaning on one of the dissection benches, seated in a wheeled chair. There was a flush of hard work on her cheeks, and a few strands of her hair had come down.
“Oh, it’s you,” Gideon said to him, good-naturedly. “What’s going on downstairs? Harrow’s thrown me out again.”
Palamedes looked over to Dulcinea, but she had looked back down, and was carefully cleaning her instruments.
“We’re all having tea in the staff room,” he said, instead of anything else. “Would you two care to join us?”
By dinner, he was sure that Harrow was hiding something. She kept to herself (and Gideon) most of the time, scuttling around in the shadows, but today she kept looking around to see who was watching her. And she’d thrown Gideon out, Gideon had said. He nudged Camilla with his foot.
“I know,” she said. “Are we sitting up for a game of chess?”
“If you’re feeling up to it,” Palamedes said.
They sat in the parlour, with the door open for propriety (if anybody asked) and really so they could get a view of the front door. That was the thing about this house; built onto the side of a hill as it was, there was only really one way in or out. Inconvenient for everything except this.
It got later and later, and finally the color started to bleed from the sky as the late summer sunset lost its battle with the night. Camilla fought him to a stalemate twice before he eked out a victory with almost everything gone from the board except his pawns.
“Now you’re paying attention,” she said, tipping her king over with one finger. Something moved through the window behind her, visible only because it cut off light from the houses across the valley; Palamedes sat up straight. Camilla twisted around, but by the time she had it was gone.
“Something out the window,” he said, standing up. “I’m not sure-“
“Come on,” she said, and they crept silently out the front door – just in time to see Harrow and Gideon vanishing around the corner of the bridge and up the path to the road.
“Did they climb down?” Camilla said, a bit skeptical.
“I wouldn’t put it past Gideon,” Palamedes said back, low and not a whisper; whispers carried. He’d learned that playing hide and seek with some of their other cousins, as children. “But Harrow surprises me.”
They followed them along Kelburn Road, past the shops and down to the college. Then they lost them, for a crucial second. Palamedes swore under his breath. They retreated across the Parade, to stand in front of one of the faculty houses. A minute passed; another. A light flickered on the second story of the main building, like someone passing a window carrying a candle.
“There,” Camilla said, and they darted back across the road. The main door was, of course, locked.
Palamedes produced the key he’d – stolen was a little harsh – that he’d borrowed off Abigail. He had every intention of bringing it back this evening, after all, no worse for wear. One heart-stopping creak, and they were inside.
They found them in the biology collection. It smelled of formaldehyde and other, more poisonous things. Glass-eyed birds watched them from shelves. In the center, two figures – one small and skinny, one tall and broad-shouldered, both women, both dressed in black - were hunched over a tray of insects on pins. Some of them were small, barely visible by the flickering light of the candle; some of them were larger. The biggest was some sort of giant wētā, as long as Palamedes’ hand and as round as a carrot.
Harrow was muttering – something, just out of hearing. Palamedes heard Greek, and Latin, and maybe Māori. He was concentrating so hard on sneaking up, and on trying to understand what she was saying, that when the first leg twitched he thought it was the wavering candlelight, from the old-fashioned candle-holder Gideon was wielding.
Then another one twitched, and another, and he knew that it wasn’t. Partially because of the evidence of his own eyes, which could not be denied; partially because of the way Camilla’s shoulders tensed; mostly because of the way Gideon said “Oh, yuck,” as loudly as if she wasn’t sneaking around in the middle of the night.
“Not now, I’m concentrating,” Harrow snapped, and the wētā jerked itself awfully off the pin holding it in place, clambering over the bodies of its fallen brethren to perch on Harrow’s hand. The room was so silent that you could hear the scrape of its dried legs across the husks of the other insects.
Several years ago, Palamedes and Camilla had been tasked with taking some of their younger cousins to a cartoon movie about Snow White. The heroine had sung a song with a bluebird perched on her finger. It was, if you squinted, and didn’t have a fear of insects, perhaps something a little bit like that.
“I can’t believe that works,” Gideon said, screwing up her face to peer at the undead wētā as if doing so would tell her something about how Harrow’s – ritual – had succeeded. Palamedes unscrewed his own face when he realised he was doing the same thing, from a distance.
“I thought they might glow,” he said out loud, now he was certain of what was going on. Camilla shot him a quick, alarmed glance. “But it looks very ordinary, doesn’t it?”
Harrow and Gideon both whipped around. Harrow stuck the arm with the dead and not dead wētā on it behind her back, like a child caught with a sweet; Gideon swore, fumbled the candleholder, steadied it again in a magnificent display of reflexes, and then somehow her other hand contained a cavalry saber pointed at him and Camilla. This was clearly a surprise to Harrow, who hissed “Gideon!” In an outraged fashion, but not as much of a surprise to Palamedes as the fact that Camilla had backed up two steps, forced him behind her, and had upped the stakes with a revolver, held steadily and aimed at Gideon’s face.
“You know,” Gideon said, executing an idle and very show-off-ish figure of eight with the saber, “I bet I could get that out of your hand before you could shoot me. Those things have more kickback than you might reckon.”
“I know,” said Camilla, which was...not precisely news to Palamedes, because he did have a vague recollection of her cleaning it at one stage or another, but he didn’t think he remembered her practicing with it.
He looked to Harrow for some sense. The wētā was making its way, slowly, up her arm. It didn’t seem terribly energetic; Palamedes was sure he’d seen the things move faster in life. Then again, this wasn’t a regular wētā, it was a great giant sort that looked like it could eat a mouse and have room for seconds.
“Are you telling it to do that? How?”
“No,” Harrow said, frowning again. The wētā stopped. “It seems to have instincts.”
Palamedes stepped out from behind Camilla. She shoved him back behind her with her free hand. Gideon edged in front of Harrow.
“Pax, come on,” Palamedes said. “You just did what we’ve all been trying to do.”
“In the middle of the night!” Camilla objected. “Why not wait -”
Harrow tilted her head, eyes narrowing. “You think we’re spies.”
“I think you’re probably spies,” Gideon added, in tones of great cheerfulness that did not match her words. “Because we’re here in the middle of the night, but you followed us.”
“You snuck out!”
Gideon opened her mouth, but Harrow, having deposited the wētā back on the edge of the collection tray. She raised both hands. “All right. Pax. Put the gun away, Gideon will put that ridiculous thing down -”
“Will I?” Gideon sounded genuinely curious.
“- and we’ll talk about this. After all, you’re right. I did what we’ve all being trying for. On my own.” There was a smug turn to the corner of her mouth. Palamedes considered objecting that she had stood on the shoulders of – well, not giants, but at least her fellow scholars, and decided it was irrelevant to the matter at hand.
Everybody held their breaths, for a long second. Camilla backed up another step, so they were at the door, and lowered the gun.
Palamedes wondered if either of the other women had even noticed that she’d never had her finger on the trigger.
Gideon sighed, and sheathed the saber, which turned out to have come from a sheath hanging down her back. Harrow said another couple of brief phrases in Aramaic, which amounted to stop and return to your rest. The wētā – stopped. She picked it up and pinned it, delicately and precisely, back onto the tray.
“You lost a leg,” Gideon said, moving the candle over the tray.
“Nobody’s even looked at these for years, they were all dusty,” Harrow snapped. She wiped her hands off against each other. “I suppose you want to know how I figured it out.”
“I want to know why you thought you needed to do it in the middle of the night,” said Palamedes.
“She just wanted to be a big show-off and do it perfectly for everybody tomorrow,” said Gideon. “That’s all.”
“Doing things right isn’t being a show-off. But that’s not all.” Harrow spoke in measured tones; Gideon raised her eyebrows. Harrow went on. “Someone was reading my notes, the last couple of days. And that’s ridiculous, because of course anything substantial I put together I’d report back.”
“Except you didn’t,” said Gideon.
“I would report back when I was certain of it, Gideon, don’t be difficult. I thought it was Silas at first, because he’s a complete beast, and he doesn’t trust any of us, not even his own nephew. But it wasn’t; he asked me some questions that anybody who’d read my notes would have known the answers to.” Harrow took a deep breath; she was a slight woman, especially compared to Gideon, and it moved her whole frame. “And then I thought...they hid this study all the way on the other side of the world from the War – from most of the War – because they were afraid it would be found out. And we just got four new people, and now someone’s sneaking around. So.” She Met Palamedes’ eyes directly. “Are you looking for spies?”
“Someone’s been copying things,” Camilla said immediately. “So, yes. We are.”
“Sp – you don’t think it’s Isaac and Jeanne,” Gideon said. She made a face. “They’re brats, but they’re all right.”
“Well, it isn’t D- it isn’t Miss Septimus,” Palamedes countered. “I don’t think the timing’s anything to do with their arrival. I think it’s because we’re so close to....”
“I don’t actually know that we are,” Harrow admitted, folding her arms and shrugging. “A wētā is one thing; it’s just a cricket with pretensions. A whole human...or multiple humans. That’s something else.”
“Have you -”
Harrow shook her head. “No. This was the first time it – it worked first time. I thought I should start...modestly.”
“Can we go home now, then?” Gideon waved her candle holder. “This is nearly out, and I can’t believe you made me break into a building with a candle, by the way -” The candle, which had survived all her other carelessnesses, went out.
There was darkness, and a great, aggrieved sigh from Harrow. Camilla struck a match, and lit the dark lantern she’d hidden under the parlour table when they’d sat down to chess, what felt like an age ago.
“See,” Gideon said. “We need one of those.”
“Fine,” said Harrow. “Let’s go.”
“How do we know you’re not spies, though?” Camilla asked.
“I’d stab you both and we’d throw your bodies in the harbour,” said Gideon. “Although that’s also a lot of work because Harrow would make me carry both of you, so maybe I’d just hide you in the basement.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Harrow. “If you were going to go that far I’d try reanimating them.”
By the time they were most of the way back – thankfully the moon had risen and they didn’t need to resort to the lantern, which was more than a little suspicious – Palamedes had got about half of what Harrow had done out of her, although obviously she was holding something back. He could respect that; he respected that she’d done the thing at all. He hadn’t quite believed it was possible.
He wondered what Dulcinea would think of it, and felt a sense of outrage again that Harrow and Gideon would try and link – but of course, they didn’t know her; they hadn’t been even distant acquaintances before she’d been brought on, so far as he knew. But if not her...oh, perhaps it was Silas, being a mistrusting bastard. The newspapers banged on about the possibility of Axis spies, and there were more than a few poor sods interned on Somes Island in the middle of the harbour, but faced with the magnitude of what they might be about to accomplish, the knowledge they would gain, Palamedes couldn’t treat the idea of spies, suddenly, as anything more than –
“Taiho, everybody,” Gideon said, with great urgency, as they came to the bridge. She held out a long arm; Harrow walked into it, and Palamedes and Camilla piled behind her. In the moonlight, Palamedes saw what she’d seen. The handrail was broken, sharp splinters framing a gaping hole, and there were scratches in the wood of the bridge planks.
Gideon moved forward quickly, drawing her sword and using it to test each plank before she stepped on it.
“Let me do it, I’m lighter,” Harrow offered – ordered – but Gideon shook her head, and moved on. Palamedes bit his lip, waiting for the crack of wood, but nothing moved beneath her feet. She came to the damaged area, and peered over. She sucked in a horrified breath.
“Lantern, lantern,” she said quickly and not quietly; Camilla ran forward, and then Palamedes and Harrow did, and they were all peering over as Gideon lit the lantern and held it over the side to reveal a trail of broken branches and crushed plants down the cliff, yellowed by the lantern-light, and then at the bottom of it, half-hidden by the trees, shapes that were – that looked like they could be –
“That’s the shirt Magnus was wearing this evening,” Palamedes observed. His voice sounded distant to his own ears.
Gideon went for the house, yelling; the lantern light fled with her.
By moonlight, Palamedes found, you couldn’t tell there was anything human down there at all.
The resulting scene was ugly. Beth was sobbing; Ianthe pushed her away in disgust. Dulcinea had been awake – unable to sleep, she said – and sat in a chair, bolt-upright, obviously holding herself there with will alone. Everybody was tense, half-asleep, and less than half believing that their colleagues and hosts could be dead. And he was about to make it worse. But...it had to be done.
“There’s something we need to discuss,” he said, and told them all about the summary notes someone had been taking. He waited for someone to say that it was theirs, that it was a misunderstanding, that it was irrelevant.
“Why was this not reported to me -” Silas began, but Camilla shook her head at him. “We didn’t have anything more than this!”
“I wasn’t speaking to you, Miss Hect,” he said frostily. Her eyes narrowed. The resulting argument was broken up by Gideon punching the side of the brick fireplace, which did nothing to the fireplace, gave her bloody knuckles, and got everybody to shut up. It was the most effective thing anybody had done in the last half an hour.
Palamedes sat down next to Dulcinea. It seemed like an age since she’d arrived at the dock, but it had been less than two weeks. He didn’t want to bother her, but he couldn’t not – he needed to know she was taking this well. As fragile as she was physically, she must be concerned for her own safety with a murderer running loose.
“How are you coping?” he asked. He wanted to take her hand; he couldn’t. He didn’t – he wished he knew how to ask if he could, but he thought, if he could, he would know. “I know you didn’t know them very well...”
“One has to buck up, of course,” she said. Her eyes were wet; Palamedes offered her his handkerchief, but she declined it with a smile, touching the back of her hand to each eye. “It isn’t – you’re right, I didn’t know them well. It’s the horror on our doorstep.”
“If you need anything, you just have to ask.” He’d told her that more than once in their letters; he thought she might acknowledge that. But all she said was “You’re very kind, and you’re right. We’ve all got to hang together to see the thing through.” For a minute something like humour flickered in her eyes. “Or we’ll all hang separately, isn’t that how the saying goes?”
“I believe so.”
Dulcinea coughed. “I’m sorry; I think I must go and lie down for a bit.” Before Palamedes could say anything, she turned and called for Gideon.
He wondered, uncharitably, where her manservant had got to, and then reminded himself for the fiftieth time to let it be.
On the way back to the college the next morning, Palamedes stopped – how could he not – to look over at the crushed bushes below, where Abigail and Magnus had lain. The bodies were gone.
“It’s not right,” Jeanne said, coming up beside him and crossing her arms. Silas had instructed everybody to stay in pairs, if not more. That was going to be a great help if you were stuck with whoever had done this, Palamedes considered bitterly, but it wasn’t as idiotic as Silas’s usual sort of instruction.
“What’s not right?” He asked her.
“How it’s broken,” she said. “Wood doesn’t -” She broke off, shaking her head. Colum was coming around the corner. “Never mind.”
Palamedes turned to look at her properly, his curiosity now aroused, but she just shook her head again and turned sideways to get past him; there wasn’t enough room to walk two-by-two now. They made their way down the hill in silence, ensured by Colum’s presence.
When they arrived at the college, Gideon was herding everybody upstairs. She even managed to herd Marta into helping her do it, which was a feat in itself. Palamedes tried to ask her why, but all she said was ‘Harrow’ in long-suffering tones.
Upstairs, in the biology laboratory, Harrow was setting things up around one of Beth and Ianthe and Dulcinea’s rats – not one of the preserved ones, either. It looked freshly dead. Dulcinea was in her wheeled chair again, eyes sparkling. She had her hands held neatly together in her lap, but was leaning forward, as if she couldn’t resist.
Harrow had the sleeves of her lab coat rolled up to the elbow, several streaks of blood on her face, and a determined set to her jaw.
“I’m only going to do this once,” she was telling Dulcinea. “So just wait.”
“What are you only going to do once?” Palamedes asked, but he thought he already knew. Jeanne and Isaac and the others were crowding in behind him. He looked for Magnus looming behind, and he wasn’t there; it felt unreal, like he must be just around the corner. And Abigail was, surely, in the next room.
He wondered where their corpses lay now, and hoped it was some guarded morgue at the hospital.
“What is the meaning of this?” Silas demanded, finally making his appearance. Gideon strolled behind him. Harrow looked directly at him, and smirked, and brought the rat back to life.
There was a silent wave of disquiet, broken only by the sound of Dulcinea clapping.
Camilla had fought her way through the crowd to stand next to Palamedes. “Well,” she murmured. “Can’t say she doesn’t have a sense of timing.”
The discussion that followed could more properly have been characterised as an argument. Ianthe thought that they should waste no time trying the method on a human body, and demanded that Harrow allow her to make the attempt. Harrow snapped back that they didn’t have any corpses handy. Gideon offered to retrieve one from the cemetery just down the hill, to a chorus of disgust from Isaac and Jeanne. General bickering followed.
“Enough!” Silas said, finally, even though nobody was listening to him. The noise went on until Palamedes managed to make eye contact with Gideon, who had been leaning over, talking to Dulcinea. She rolled her eyes and let out a two-fingered whistle so loud Palamedes wouldn’t have been surprised if it had shattered glass.
“Was that really necessary?” Harrow said.
“As I was trying to say,” Silas interrupted, “the necessary materials for further experimentation can be provided, but this makes it all the more urgent we discover what happened to Mr and Mrs Quinn – if they were enemy agents, or just murdered by them -”
“How dare you!” Dulcinea said, her voice rising in a way it never had before, her cheeks flushed with outrage. “They’re dead!”
“Disrespecting the dead is more or less our job here,” Ianthe observed. Dulcinea flushed further, and then went into a coughing fit which sounded like it might bring up a lung. Palamedes decided to be useful for once and went to fetch a glass of water; when he got back Gideon was hovered protectively over her, but she took it with a grateful smile. He felt like he’d won a point in tennis, and also like he should know better than to be playing the game at all.
“I should really go and lie down for a few minutes,” Dulcinea said wearily. She’d crumpled up her handkerchief in her hand. “Can someone – where is Mr. Protesilaus?”
Palamedes turned around, and so did everybody else, all the way to the back of the room, because he wasn’t there.
“He must be back at the house,” Dulcinea said, exerting obvious effort to stay upright in her chair. “Perhaps we could telephone.”
By the time Gideon had laid her on a couch in the staff room, Marta had called, and Judith had gone running back, and Naberius and Colum had been told off to search the main college building, but Dulcinea fell into a weary doze, and he wasn’t anywhere. Anywhere at all.
Camilla rubbed her forehead. “Can you remember the last time you saw him? I can’t.”
“No,” Palamedes said, thinking furiously. “Was it before -”
“I don’t know.” Camilla’s voice was grim.
There was a pattern here, Palamedes thought, but damned if he could see it.
Palamedes let Camilla ask the questions; he didn’t have the heart to do it properly. He did make her wait until Dulcinea woke up, and Judith had called back to say that their missing man certainly wasn’t at the house, or anywhere around it that she could see – and she had considered whether he’d fallen.
Dulcinea told Camilla, with Palamedes trying not to hover in the doorway, that Protesilaus had been newly hired for the voyage in San Francisco. Her last assistant had been called away for the war effort, and she had been working with colleagues at Radcliffe when the Atlantic had become too dangerous for regular passenger travel. She said his paperwork was all in order and he had never been anything but helpful; the OSS, it turned out, had taken her word for it. Silas was going to have some things to say about that.
By the evening he was still missing, and everybody whispered in corners. Dulcinea recruited Gideon to help her to her room, of course. Palamedes thought about sleeping outside her door, and then reminded himself that this was a ridiculous course of action. But he did make Camilla share watches with him, just in case of – just in case.
Nothing stirred in the night, unless you counted Harrow, brooding in the parlour. But that was just Harrow, and she couldn’t be the murderer in this instance.
Breakfast was scant and everybody was bleary-eyed; Dulcinea didn’t get out of bed at all. Isaac and Jeanne offered to stay at the house until she was well enough to leave.
“As long as someone does,” Gideon grumped, having been beaten to it.
Everybody pretended to work and nobody did; Palamedes copied out half his notes clean and then realised he’d made three spelling errors, and had to start again. Silas said investigators would be coming to speak to them this afternoon. The tedium was broken by a phone call from Isaac and Jeanne. Palamedes managed to take it, but only because his desk was closest to their sole telephone.
“We’ve found it!” Isaac said, without even a greeting. “We – wait, who is this?”
“Palamedes,” Palamedes said, trying not to sound to amused. “What have you found?”
“The saw,” Isaac said, like that explained everything. “And it was -”
Palamedes was distracted by Naberius banging into the room, his eyes wild. “I found him!”
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Palamedes said, and left the phone off the hook to race after Naberius, Camilla on his heels. They picked up Gideon along the way, down three flights of stairs, along a corridor, down another – Palamedes hadn’t realised there were this many levels of basement, then remembered they were on a hill – and into some storage room. Ianthe and Harrow were kneeling on the floor over a body. Someone was saying something. It took Palamedes a second or two to realise that the language was German, and the person speaking was the body – not a body, then – and that person was Dulcinea’s missing manservant.
“-verdammt Frau,” he was muttering. “Sie...sie ist...” Then it degenerated into mumbling.
“Head injury,” Harrow said, with surprising professionalism. “I’m amazed he’s still conscious. I can feel where his skull’s been caved in.”
Gideon made a face; Palamedes didn’t blame her.
“Hmph,” said Camilla. “Mute, is he?”
“Oh, who cares?” said Ianthe. “He was spying on us, fine, we might as well get on with things.” She pulled something shining out of a pocket and reached down.
“You idiot!” Harrow shrieked, but before anybody could get there, the man gasped, and moaned, and from somewhere blood started to pool under him.
“Femoral artery, give it thirty seconds,” Ianthe said clinically, standing up. Harrow remained kneeling, careless of the blood. “Stop fussing, Harrow.”
Harrow jerked to her feet, eyes blazing, skirts blood-soaked. Palamedes grabbed Camilla’s arm; he had an idea what was about to happen and they were better off further away.
“Revolver?” he asked her.
“I slept with it,” she said out of the side of her mouth, wiggling her hand in one of her skirt pockets. Ianthe was holding out a hand, and chanting. Gideon yanked Harrow out of the way only just in time.
The dead man rose. It was jerky, and awful, but the dim glow leaking out from under his eyelids gave it a curiously ridiculous air. Palamedes could be unsettled by the dead walking; the dead glowing made it seem...unreal.
Ianthe wore an expression of triumph as the man, the thing, took a lurching step, then another. Then it tried to strangle Naberius, which was when things got really messy. Camilla’s shots, though accurate, did nothing. Gideon whacking it did nothing, and chopping cleanly through its elbow joint also did nothing, which, Palamedes somehow found time to think, was quite a surprise. It took more chanting from Harrow to put the thing down, and Naberius was blue and had a ring of bruises forming around his neck by the time she managed it. Palamedes memorised as much as he could of what she’d said, since he couldn’t take notes.
Harrow slapped Ianthe, hard.
“It needed to be fresh!” Ianthe said, putting a hand to her cheek. The corpse definitely seemed to be a corpse again, thank God.
“Only if you’re incompetent!”
He left them to it and dashed back upstairs to the phone. “Isaac?”
It was dead; Isaac had hung up. Palamedes thought through what was happening, and was moving a second later.
When he ran into the house, calling their names, the house was silent. It was silent in the kitchen, and in the hallway, and silent when he found Isaac and Jeanne lying in the parlour, cups of tea fallen from their hands. They might be unconscious, or might be dead; he didn’t stop to check. He ran to Dulcinea’s room, instead, opening the door as if he had a right. He wanted her to protest, to be asleep, to be innocent.
She wasn’t there. She wasn’t there, and her things were spread messily across the room. He found half a sheet of paper, caught in a half-shut drawer, and recognised a copy of one of the curse tablets he’d so painstakingly translated. He didn’t recognise the handwriting. That didn’t make sense. He knew Dulcinea’s handwriting; he’d read dozens of her letters.
Something prickled at the back of his neck.
Regardless, she wasn’t there, and she’d been taken, or – or left. He made himself go back out and check Isaac and Jeanne.
If they had pulses, he couldn’t feel them. There was a saw on the table, a plain woodsaw, with dust still caught in its teeth. He thought about the bridge that had sent Abigail and Magnus down a cliff, and about how two engineers might know how you could weaken something just enough. And how he didn’t know the handwriting on the piece of paper he was holding. What did he know?
Camilla found him fifteen minutes later.
“The next door neighbour just told Gideon that they saw Dulcinea leaving the house by herself,” she said. “She was asking about the ferry across the harbour.” She took a step into the room and saw the bodies, and her eyes went wide. Palamedes shook his head.
Her lips thinned; she swallowed. Then she squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again. “Right. Silas said we should all stay where we were, until he could call in the proper authorities, but -”
“To hell with that,” Palamedes said. “I’ll leave a note. We’ve got a ferry to catch.”
“Palamedes,” Camilla said, quietly. “I’m sorry. That it’s her.”
“I – yes,” he said. “But we have to fix this first.”
“Oh, good,” said Gideon as they left the house. “We were about to leave without you. Come on.”
The ferry was packed with people making day trips to Days Bay, families going to stay in cottages, women dressed for a day at the beach, ordinary people living their ordinary lives. The blood on Harrow’s skirts had dried, and fortunately she never wore anything but black, but in the warm day – well, warm for Wellington – it was starting to smell. It won them some room.
Palamedes stood at the front of the ferry and tried to see the previous one – was that it, coming back across the harbour? A military vessel was making its way through the heads, flying the Empire’s naval ensign. To the south, clouds were massing; a southerly was on its way in. The water was choppy, and Camilla was sitting down, a set expression on her face. She was prone to seasickness, and never liked to admit it.
“What are you going to do when we find her?” Harrow asked, appearing beside him. Gideon was busy trying to charm a pair of daytripping women – sisters, Palamedes thought from their faces.
“What are you going to do?”
“Depends on what we find,” Harrow said calmly. “Take her prisoner if we can. Stop her getting away if we can’t.”
Palamedes had to think about that for a moment. Apparently that was all the answer Harrow needed.
“I thought so,” she said.
“I’m trying hard to remember why we’re even doing any of this,” Palamedes responded, as quietly as he could with their voices snatched away by the wind. He remembered the horror in the basement. It was what they’d worked for. It wasn’t anything he wanted, of its own virtue. It was...necessary? It had to be.
“I’d love to give you a motivational speech about my tragic past, except I wouldn’t,” Harrow said. “But we can all agree that since we’ve done the thing, we can’t let the enemy have it.”
“You’re right – that’s not motivational at all.”
Harrow ignored him, and went to talk to Camilla. Palamedes tried to look for the ferry again. If it was somewhere among the whitecaps, he couldn’t see it.
They docked at the rickety wooden wharf to no sign of Dulcinea, and no helpful trail of footprints in wet sand, or anything like; the wind was picking up, but there were still dozens of people on the beach.
“Split up, and meet back here in ten minutes,” Palamedes suggested. It only took five; Camilla found someone who’d seen a young woman of Dulcinea’s description heading south, towards Eastbourne village.
“She told them she was being followed, but by men, and needed to get to her aunt’s house in Eastbourne,” Camilla explained. Her mouth twisted, wryly. “I said we were friends, and they believed it. Good thing it was me and not you, Pal.”
Palamedes wanted to say that they were her friends, and perhaps it was a misunderstanding, but – but. He’d seen the hilt of Gideon’s sword, hidden by her jacket collar.
“What’s in Eastbourne?” he wondered out loud.
“The Ward Island boom,” Harrow said impatiently, pointing as they jogged along the shore. “German ships have been laying mines around the harbour mouth. They could send a small boat in, and pick her up, if she walks out along it.”
“Isaac said he saw radio equipment in her room,” Gideon said. “I think I saw it, too. She said it was for listening to music...”
Harrow glared at her. “And you didn’t say anything?”
“I liked her,” Gideon said, furious and final, and for a moment Palamedes felt a bizarre kinship with her.
By the time they reached the boom, the southerly was steady and the sky was grey. Not so different from the day Dulcinea’s ship had made port. It felt like approximately a lifetime ago.
There was nobody guarding the boom, and of course why would there be – all it could do was take you out to Ward Island, a tiny rock in the heart of the harbour. The boom was just there to stop ships passing out of sight of the gun emplacements at Seatoun. Against every hope Palamedes had, Dulcinea was visible, halfway along; a tiny figure, swaying with the waves. A particularly large one slapped the boom, and she went down on her knees, vanishing for a long moment. He felt – sick. Afraid. Nothing.
Gideon had her sword out.
“How do you carry that thing around?” Camilla asked her, half-amused, as Palamedes and Harrow climbed onto the boom.
“Helps, being tall,” Gideon said.
Once they were moving, it was hard to keep his eyes on Dulcinea; it took all his effort to keep moving, and keep upright. Salt water splashed into his eyes, and it burned. He thought about mythology, and the dead, and wondered what it would do to the things Harrow and Ianthe had created. He wondered if he would ever get the chance to try what they had, and if he wanted to.
One step at a time, slippery, cold, desperate.
After an age that lasted probably fifteen minutes, he got a good sight of Dulcinea again. She had lain down and was clinging to the boom. She was wearing a lifejacket, and a terribly pragmatic oilskin. It was planned, and she was –
A voice at the back of Palamedes’ mind was pointing out that he had no real evidence this had ever been Dulcinea Septimus. A grainy photograph, a telegram. Did he know this woman at all?
She hadn’t noticed them yet, but then there was a choked-off scream behind Palamedes. He couldn’t whirl around to see; he had to move carefully, placing his feet, or fall. By the time he’d turned, he could see Harrow in the water. She was holding on to the only thing Gideon had had to offer; her sword. Palamedes could already see blood dripping.
“Keep going!” Camilla shouted over the wind. “I’ll help them!”
He turned back. Nothing to be done. The scream had got Dulcinea’s attention; she was clambering to her feet, moving again, toward the island. Behind it, across the harbour, the city was already lost in rain. The southerly was screaming.
A lot of things about Dulcinea had been lies, but she wasn’t strong. Palamedes caught up to her long before the island.
“Dulcinea!” he called. “Come back to shore. Let’s – have a discussion.”
“I think you know there’s nothing to discuss,” she said, polite as if they were taking tea in Abigail Quinn’s parlour. “Go back. You might live.”
“I know you don’t owe me anything,” Palamedes said. “But I do want to know -” a wave slapped them both, and they spluttered. The boom was swaying. “I want to know why. I used to think correspondence told you a lot about a person. I thought I knew you, perhaps. But I didn’t.”
“I’ve never written you a thing,” the woman on the boom said, and some last shred of hope died. “Dulcinea Septimus died on the voyage to Boston. It was peaceful, if that helps.” She eyed him, curious. “She was quite fond of you, I think.”
She was too calm, and Palamedes risked a glance out towards the harbour mouth. There was something coming, just above the surface of the water. A periscope? An escape.
“You have no idea what I’ve been through,” she was saying, her face twisted up now, in disgust or disdain. “I thought it was nonsense, what they sent me after, but apparently – well, what can I say? It’s going to make the war much more interesting. There’s certainly no shortage of corpses on the Eastern Front.”
Nothing behind him that he could hear. He didn’t have Camilla’s revolver, and besides that wasn’t his skill. He wondered who she was, who she’d been, why –
It didn’t matter, did it. He checked again. A periscope, no question, and coming closer.
“One last question,” he said.
“Very well,” sighed the woman.
“Can you swim?”
“No,” said Palamedes. “Me either. I spent too much time in the library.”
It had been a stupid thing to say, because it gave her a second’s warning, but it didn’t make any difference in the end; the boom was very slippery, and moving, and he weighed more than she did.
They went off together. Palamedes wondered where Camilla was, and Gideon and Harrow. He lunged for her oilskin, hoping the documents were in it, and came away with a handful of hair and a scratched arm, which stung in the salt water. It was calmer in the lee of the boom, but waves were still crashing over his head. He really couldn’t swim very well. This didn’t feel sweet or proper. Damn all poets, anyway.
He couldn’t see her any longer. Another wave.
He grabbed the side of the boom, and held on, and held on, and hoped. There was nothing else left to do.