A Steampunk Romance: The Heart is a Clock
Hi everyone. In the spirit of Romance, I’m posting a short story that I recently dabbled with. The idea came about from a Foo Fighters lyric, oddly enough, but the story grew legs and walked a long way from that initial image. This is my first attempt at Romance, rather than straight forward Specualtive Fiction, so please let me know what you think. Of course, for my regular viewers, it’s also Steampunk.
Away we go!
The Heart is a Clock
London, England. September, 1853.
The dirigible’s turbines chewed up a cloud of dust, lifting the gondola and its gas-filled sack above the crowds of Covent Market. Sally turned her face away, one hand pressed to the cloth mask over her mouth. A gust of gritty air tugged her hair from its bundle, teasing it into blonde tendrils. Swiping hair from her eyes, she watched as the freight-dirigible drift around before pulling away, rising to avoid London’s flag-marked rooftops, its turbines rattling slate and window panes until the engine’s noise became a distant hum.
The sounds of the Empire’s capital faded back in. Closest were the clucks and brays of cattle and market sellers, then the rumble of traffic and occasional hoot of a steam whistle out on the main road. And over all, an incomprehensible chatter of the Londoners around her.
Somewhere beyond Covent Garden’s arcade, a bell tolled six o’clock. London, or at least this part of it, was already thriving at this time in the morning. Lifting a tray of groceries onto her shoulder, Sally crossed the marketplace. Other maids and groomsmen milled around, some carrying packages and sacks, others leading horses. Mister Spencer would be up soon, and wanting his breakfast. Sally had to get back. Strapping the tray of groceries to the back of her bicycle, she took a moment to tame strands of her hair under her lace cap. Lifting the hem of her skirt, she mounted the bicycle and pushed off, weaving through the crowd. Bumping down onto the road, a breeze caught her skirts, exposing the tops of her ankle boots. A group of workmen by the road whistled and shouted something she couldn’t quite hear, but she still rode the rest of the way home with hot cheeks.
Godfrey and the Lad were in the yard when Sally drew into the back of Mr Spencer’s townhouse. The horses’ heads were buried in their nosebags, Godfrey brushed one and the Lad stood on a small stool by the other.
“Anything for me in there?” asked Godfrey as Sally leant her bicycle against the kitchen’s exterior wall.
“You know there isn’t Godfrey. I don’t know why you bother asking,” she said. The groom was young, although older than her, and handsome in a brusque kind of way that set her nerves on edge.
“I wasn’t talking about the tray,” he said, and went to slap her bottom as she passed. Sally skipped out of the way before he could connect the blow.
“How dare you? And especially in front of the boy!”
The Lad pulled his cap down over his expansive ears and pretended to be lost in his task.
“Why you have to be so tightly wound, Sally? You’re no lady, you know. You’re of servant stock, just like me. You could do a lot worse, you know. If only you’d loosen yourself.”
Sally spun around in the kitchen’s doorway, protected by the small gap between the jamb and the door itself.
“If I ever got loose enough to want you, Godfrey Jones, I’d consider myself in a sad state.”
Before he could answer with some terse remark, Sally ducked back into the kitchen, slamming the door. Splashing her face with water at the porcelain sink seemed to cool the glowing embers in her cheeks. She felt a lump rising in her throat. So easily Godfrey’s words moved her.
“Don’t let him get to you, girl,” said Mrs Graves, whose arms were white to the elbows with flour as she pounded dough on the work surface.
Sally took her apron from the hook and tied it around her waist.
“I don’t,” she said. “Not as much as I used to.”
“But still too much. You just ignore him. You’ll find yourself a fine man soon enough.”
Sally stepped up behind the cook and wrapped her arms around Mrs Graves’ waist. Her hands didn’t meet around the other side. Pressing her cheek to the old woman’s back, she said: “I often think that there are no good men in London, Mrs Graves. Just louts and letches.”
“Mark my words,” replied the cook. “Now get along. There’s much work to be done before Mister Spencer’s guests arrive.”
Dusting the knees of her formal skirt for the hundredth time, Sally picked up the silver platter and moved from the kitchen to the wood panelled hallway of Mister Spencer’s house. Tiny squares of bread and cucumber threatened to landslide in her hands as she sashayed into the parlour.
It seemed every second of every day was spent carrying. Heavy and light. Canisters and meals and groceries and buckets of soapy water. She could barely remember the last time she walked anywhere without being laden with something. Only at night, when she stood before the tall mirror in her quarters, could she straighten her back and gasp when the bones popped. She would be an old woman before her twenty fifth birthday, that was for sure.
Apologising and pardoning, she wove through a crowd of Gentlemen and Ladies, swooping the platter like a silver kite. The large oak doors that usually separated the dining room and lounge were thrown open, as were the lattice windows. But a weak summer breeze did little to stir the smog of cigar smoke in the room. Lucky that Sally was only a tad over five feet and the smoke hung higher than her bonnet. Coming around a low table to a small group of suited moustaches, she hovered there.
“You should have an apron, sir. For you are a scaremonger,” said Mister Spencer to the guffaws of his companions. Each was dressed similar and yet different in bibs and cummerbunds. The man he was addressing only smiled and sipped at his drink. He was tall, frightfully thin, but elegant like a willow tree. Sally recognised his accent. He must have been the French Ambassador.
“I understand, Monsieur. If my country were as powerful and unquenchable as your own, I would have the same confidence.” He sipped his wine. “As it is, I am perhaps paranoid. But with the machinery they have these days, you cannot expect the Russians to simply meet on a field of battle, obeying the old rules of honour. Things are moving forward, Monsieurs. Things change. I hope you are as ready for it as you think.”
Mister Spencer gave a smile that was restricted to the mouth. If Sally hadn’t known better, she’d call it a snarl. Unfortunately, Sally caught Mister Spencer’s eye and most of the anger hurtled her way. With a flick of his chin, he rebounded her across the room to a group of women he felt were neglected in the sandwich department. Sally was happy to be away. If she was any judge, that conversation would very soon end in raised voices.
Surrounded by their coloured skirts, the Ladies perched on chairs and the chaise, primping and preening their woven hair and generally being delicate. Fingers pecked at Sally’s platter, their owners unaware of the girl who carried it. Soon enough, there were none left, and Sally made to leave.
The platter nearly slid from her fingers.
She saw his eyes first; the warmest of browns flecked with tin like a sheriff’s star. They were buried in a young face, narrow and pale. Gentle mahogany waves spilled from the parting in his hair, partially tamed for the occasion. He stood behind the door with a glass of bourbon held out from his chest as if he were practicing dancing with a lady. His suit was a deep grey and of thick wool unsuited for a warm English evening. The chain for his pocket watch was simple and bulky and he wore another around his neck bearing a clock’s wind-up key.
He saw her. His eyebrows knotted in a weak expression which screamed “please save me from these people” and his mouth twitched into a smile. Sally realised that she had to breathe, and gasped, but all the air was gone from the room. Sally was suddenly aware of the faded patches on her skirt’s knee, and the single curl that would never stay inside her bonnet. Turning her back on the stranger’s heavy gaze, she realised that she was supposed to be leaving and had to turn back toward him to face the door. Aiming her wide eyes at the ground, she jogged out into the hallway, and ran all the way to the kitchen.
Sally lifted from the knees, bracing herself against the canister until it rose off the flagstones. Leaning backward to counterweight it, she wobbled along the garden path. The milk sloshed inside the canister but didn’t spill. When she got to the kitchen door, she lowered it and dragged it backward up the steps.
Sliding the milk can across the stone flags, she wiped hands on apron and went out to the store room where the brooms were kept. Last night’s reception had left all kinds of stains and smudges on the house. Not least of them was the image of a desperate stranger in her mind. She’d spent the night piecing together what she could of his appearance to give her some clues about him, but she was no detective and her fantasies came up short. He was a dignitary, probably foreign, or why would he be at Mister Spencer’s reception? And he’d smiled at her. And he’d seemed so out of place, stood behind the door, not talking to anyone with only glass of bourbon for company. Sad, almost. And he’d smiled at her. Taking special care to clean the space behind the parlour door where her foreign stranger had stood, Sally hoped to find something; a trinket, perhaps, that would give her cause to ask questions or maybe even see him again under the pretence of returning it. But there was no such luck. No pocket watch or cufflink, not a strand of hair or an errant piece of hem from his suit. Disappointed, she moved her cleaning elsewhere.
The hall floor wasn’t as bad as Sally thought it might be and brushing it took just long enough for the dust pan to fill up. Leaning her broom against the kitchen wall, she took the pan outside to empty. Godfrey was harnessing the horses, shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbow. Taking to the far wall and the tips of her toes, she tried to sneak past him.
“Good morning, Sally.” Godfrey’s head lowered past the horse’s neck, a grin plastered across it. “You’re looking fetching this morning.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Scuttling forward, she tried to stay out of his reach, but he was too fast, too wide and too strong to let that happen. The dust pan clattered on the stone flags, a cloud of dust motes exploding into the air. Sally felt the house’s cold wall against her back, seeping through her dress like icy water. Godfrey’s arms were either side of her head, hemming her in. The thick scent of his sweat made it hard to breathe. She could duck, perhaps, but there was no point. He’d catch her. He always did.
“You’re looking very fetching,” he said again, but in a different way.
“Let me go, Godfrey. What would Mister Spencer say if he knew how you treat me?”
“Nothing, and you know it. His head’s so often abroad that he never knows what’s going off in his own back yard. The old fart doesn’t care for anything but his consulate and his foreigners. Not like me. I care for you, Sally. Why won’t you let me look after you, eh?”
“You don’t care a snap, Godfrey. I know what it is you want from me and you’re not getting it.”
“Getting it again, you mean.”
Sally turned her face away as Godfrey’s came close to her. She felt his breath on her cheek first, then his face brushing her hair. His hands had moved away from the wall. Sally braced for them touching her.
Godfrey’s face whipped away. Sally heard a snarl rise in his throat.
The voice came again.
“Get away from that young woman.”
The voice was light, young, but the way the words rolled added lead weights. A strange, rumbling accent. Sally turned her head, craning to see past Godfrey who had taken a defensive stance across her.
“You shouldn’t be back here, my Lord,” said Godfrey. “Very dirty back here. Very dangerous.”
There was a steam-carriage at the end of the drive. Black. As its motor idled, chuffs of exhaust condensed in the early morning air. A crest on the door showed a shield and twin bears rampant. Sally had seen it before and now recognised the accent. Her saviour was a Russian. Godfrey would have his work cut out.
The young Lord stepped toward them and she could finally see him proper. He stood straight and thin like a rapier blade. His hair was wavy and hung to the jaw line; one side was tucked behind an ear. He still wore the same grey suit as last night. The sun glinted from the clock key around his neck. Sally’s saviour was the lonely young man who’d hidden behind the parlour door at the reception.
He leant to peer around Godfrey and locked Sally with his eyes for the second time. He beckoned to her with a gloved hand.
“Come with me, Miss. I refuse to leave you here with this heathen.”
Sally scuttled away, skipping past Godfrey to avoid any strikes he might throw her way. But the groom didn’t dare with a witness present and she passed unscathed. She curtsied to the young Russian and muttered a thank you.
“No need for that. Please go stand by my carriage.” His voice was soft, but strong. And he walked over to address Godfrey in closer quarters. Sally obeyed, but slowly, so that she might hear what was said between the men. The groom stood over the young Lord by a head, and was wider. The Russian was calm, quiet, and whatever he said, Godfrey didn’t like. Sally could see his jaw fair twanging with tension, but his eyes stayed on his boots as the Russian spoke. Then her saviour was walking back to her.
“Are you harmed?”
He dipped his head so that he might meet her eye where it rested on the pavement. He made a humph and stepped past her to open the steam-carriage’s door.
“Driver. Home.” The man on the carriage’s high seat nodded and flicked down the glass visor from his cap’s peak. “Miss, please step inside.”
Sally eyed the carriage’s plump interior, red and velvety like the inside of a lion’s mouth. She shook her head.
“I shouldn’t, sir,” she said. “Mister Spencer will be awful upset.”
“Mister Spencer won’t mind. He’ll be far too busy punishing that lout he calls a groomsman.” The Russian’s face melted into a softer version of itself. His eyes became the smiling ones that Sally had seen last night. He bowed slightly and offered his hand. “I will not take no for an answer.”
He gestured with his unoccupied hand toward the carriage door. She looked back. Godfrey was gone. Probably to the garden where he could punch the shed’s wall with his bare fist until he was calm. Rather it than her. Sally’s shoulders deflated. Lifting her skirts slightly, she climbed into the carriage. The roof was lower than she imagined, and her head slammed against it. She gave a little grunt of pain but carried on as if nothing had happened. By the time she sat down, the Russian Lord was inside and sat opposite her.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Sally nodded, which made her head pulse.
“Have you ever been in a carriage before?”
She shook her head. Throb throb.
“Then this should be an experience. You should rub your head, it will feel better.”
As he leant over to tug a bell rope, Sally took the opportunity to screw up her face and rub her head vigorously while his back was turned. The sound of the carriage’s motor rose in pitch. She could feel the puht-puht-puht of it under her seat and caught herself on the wall as they swayed out into the London traffic.
“A little like riding a row boat. But drier, I think,” said the Russian, swaying in this seat. His eyes bored into her. Now she knew how a good book felt under the avid reader’s gaze.
The carriage rattled along, its suspension springs tossing the passengers like juggling balls. Sally kept her eyes down, her hands in her lap, and her shoulder pressed against the carriage wall furthest from the Russian.
For his part, he remained silent. She was grateful.
The carriage barged its way along Duke’s Court and then The Strand. For how far, Sally wasn’t sure, but her knowledge of London told her that much. Eventually, after a few more turns that would put them somewhere beyond Covent Market, the carriage released its steam, filling it with a hiss and faint whiff of heat.
“Ah. We’re home,” said the Russian.
The Lord’s gloved hand felt far too homely in her own as Sally was helped down from the carriage. In fact, she inadvertently kept hold of it while they stood before the grand grey façade of a building she’d never seen before. The Russian’s face was pleasant, serene, as if nothing could ever startle his heart above its regular rhythm. Not even when Sally realised that she was still holding his hand, and snatched it away. He only laughed with a sweet comforting sound. Of course, she flushed.
The doorman to the Russian’s building gave Sally a sidelong sneer, but she rushed past it in the wake of her foreign saviour. Still, even with his protection, Sally was very aware that a serious line had been crossed. She shouldn’t have been there, in such a building with its cool marble floors and vaulted ceilings, the chandelier like ice caught in a brass net. And she certainly shouldn’t have been with him. At one end of the entrance hall, a wide staircase led upward. The Russian was half way up before he realised that Sally wasn’t following. He turned, looking down on her for the first time.
“I’m afraid to say that I do not own all of this fine building. Only the upper floor is for my own use. Please,” he said, and gestured that she should follow.
Looking around for any sign that she was being tricked, and more importantly that she wasn’t being watched, Sally took the first step gingerly, and then trotted to catch up.
Walnut panels lined the upper hallway, ending in a tall pair of doors made from the same wood. The Russian threw them open and the drab little hallway was filled with light. The room on the other side was larger than Mister Spencer’s parlour, sparsely furnished with matching mahogany furniture, and a fire raged beneath an ornate stone mantelpiece. But it was the windows that held Sally’s gaze. Almost as high as the room, four large panes framed a vista of London rooftops. Her city looked so pretty.
“Perhaps the finest way to view London,” said the Russian. “Please, make yourself at home. I will return shortly.”
The magic spell of the expensive apartment broke. All of a sudden Sally didn’t want to be alone in this unknown room. She span around.
“Sir?” she said. “You’ve been very kind. Too kind. Kind enough that I can’t really fathom it all at once. But I must be getting back to Mister Spencer-”
He held up a patient hand. “Everything has its time. That is what my father used to say. He’d say, ‘Nikolai, life is a series of seconds, or moments and events, and nothing will come faster than it wants or needs to.’”
Nikolai nodded as if something were being answered, his eyes focussed somewhere beyond the London cityscape, somewhere beyond the sea.
“His words lend great comfort to me,” he finally said. “Now, please, sit or
walk around. Read if you wish. Or take to the balcony. Nothing is sacred or secret here. I will be back in no time at all.”
And he was gone, softly closing the door to an adjoining room behind him.
Sally looked around the parlour, the book shelves and small tables, the grandfather clock and the painting of a bearded man above the fireplace; and she had no idea what to do next. She tried to sit; first on a small stool by the window, then perched on the edge of the embroidered sofa by the fire. Neither worked for her. She read the spines of a few books but took none from the shelves. In a moment of extreme bravery, as Lord Nikolai seemed to be away for hours, she plucked the lid from a crystal carafe and took a little sniff of the contents. The alcoholic fume made her eyes water and she quickly replaced the stopper. Checking the carriage clock on the mantelpiece showed that less than ten minutes had passed.
As she stood once more by the window, wondering how this pearl of a place could ever be nestled in the smokey shell of London, she heard a door burst open, making her jump and spin around. Through the very same door she had entered by came a man twice her size in either direction. He looked like some kind of beast, the grey fur of his long coat seeming to merge with his beard. Only his eyes, visible as a glimmer beneath his bearskin hat showed a hint of a man. Sally realised that she had pressed her back against the apartment’s tall window like a cornered mouse.
The huge man demanded something of her in bellowing Russian, gesturing with a finger thick as her wrist. Sally managed to shake her head, but couldn’t speak.
Once more, her saviour arrived through the other door.
“Aleksei, what is it?” asked Nikolai.
The immense man took Nikolai forcibly by the shoulder and half-dragged him toward the wall where he was pinned. They spoke in hushed tones, this Aleksei character’s finger a jabbing implement in the air. Then Nikolai’s hands open, imploring. At least some of the argument was about Sally. Aleksei wasn’t shy about pointing to her or throwing the odd petrifying glare her way. In the end, it seemed that Nikolai won the day, although possibly by default. The bear-like Russian threw up his arms and stormed out, slamming the doors hard enough that the carafe jangled and a book fell from the shelf with a thud.
Nikolai was visibly shaken. His eyes closed, he slipped a hand inside his embroidered waistcoat, placing it over his heart as he took deep breaths. Eventually, he ran a hand through his hair. A calming gesture. Sally couldn’t help wondering if his mother had once used that same motion when he was a boy.
“My apologies,” he finally said. “As you may know, we Russians are a passionate breed, my friend amongst the most fiery. Are you shaken?”
“No. Not at all,” lied Sally.
“Well, I am.” Nikolai gave a forced laugh and moved over to the carafe where he poured himself a drink. He quaffed two fingers of the clear liquid, grimaced, and let out a long sigh. And he was smiling again. As if nothing had happened. “My manners. Would you like one?”
Sally shook her head.
“I’m glad. I was only being polite but wouldn’t recommend the taste.”
“I really think I should go now. Mister Spencer-”
“Ah yes, no need to worry. I have sent word to Mister Spencer of what I witnessed and informed him that I refuse to release you into his care until that brute is released from service. I expect he will answer shortly. In the meantime, shall we eat?”
Sally had had this dream before. The one where servants brought her food, cleared her plate, filled her glass. But this time it really was happening. The maids flitted like moths around a lantern. How they trotted back and forth, heads down, little faceless things. And then there was Nikolai at the other end of the table, comfortable in his space, sipping his wine, eating tiny mouthfuls of his meal at a time, and always smiling at her. But Sally wasn’t blushing. In fact, she’d had to touch her face a few times just to make sure, but found nothing. What was it about the Russian that made her feel so at ease?
The meal itself wasn’t lavish, or expansive, but there was some left over which to Sally was a wonder in itself. Nikolai laughed when, after the main course, Sally piled her own side and dinner plates, china cup and cutlery all together for the maid to collect. She finally flushed for the first time that evening and apologised. He waved it away and piled his own to match, although struggling to balance it all as well as Sally had, which made her giggle.
As they sat, Nikolai asked questions about Sally’s home. Where she liked to go best in the city when she had her free time. About her parents and any siblings. How she had come to work for Mister Spencer. And by the time they were done, the gaslights were lit in the apartment and the sun had disappeared below the London skyline.
“It appears that Mister Spencer is struggling to part with his groom,” said Nikolai. “I was expecting a speedy reply from him.”
He saw Sally’s face fall and hurried to continue:
“Of course, I hoped that it would be the case. I have enjoyed your company, Sally.”
“Thank you, sir. You’ve been most kind.”
“Sally, please. I have asked so many times. Call me Nikolai. Or else I will have to refer to you as something equally ridiculous as your ‘sir’. Such as Captain, perhaps? Captain Sally.”
She covered her smile with her hand, and nodded.
“It seems that you are to remain in my charge for the evening, Sally-”
Sally’s jaw fell open.
“Oh, no.” She sprang up from her chair, but her feet didn’t move. Part of her wanted to stay a while longer at least. Just a little while longer. Just a minute or two. “Begging your pardon, Nikolai. There’s no way I could stay. I have to be going. You’ve been very kind, but-”
“I have made two promises tonight, Sally. The first, in writing, telling Mister Spencer that I would take good care of you. The second, to myself.” He remained seated, his eyes on the table cloth. He picked up the scattered bread crumbs, one by one, rolling them between his fingers in a distracted kind of way before dropping them to the floor. “You have nothing to fear from me, Sally. Not like most men. I would be very pleased if you would stay a while, but I understand if you want to leave.”
Sally found herself in an unusual situation. She had to make a decision for herself, in the presence of a man who should have made it for her.
“I- I’d very much like to stay. A while longer, at least.”
Nikolai’s face brightened as he looked up at her. She was starting to like that transformation of his face. How the light seemed to grow in his eyes as the smile spread across his narrow lips. She liked it very much.
Beyond the apartment’s tall windows, a stone balcony encircled the building. At regular intervals large urns spilled flowered vines onto the flagstones. Standing with her arms across her chest, Sally tugged a borrowed fur cape around her. Nikolai wore a long fur coat. They stood like two beasts, overlooking a human city as if they had just stepped out of the wilderness for the first time. Under a thunderous sky flickers of gas light warmed the darkness from scattered windows.
“I never thought I would see such a thing,” Nikolai said, mostly to himself. “My father was a poor man, a maker of watches and trinkets in a small cellar shop in Moscow. And so it was not expected that I, as his son, would amount to any importance. And yet here I am.” He smiled at Sally, finally seeming to remember that she was there. “In the capital city of the great British Empire, rubbing elbows with ambassadors from a hundred nations.”
“You’re not an ambassador?” Sally jumped at the sound of her own voice, which seemed sharp next to Nikolai’s gentle rumble.
“I’m far too young for that. What I am is…expendable? With hostilities growing between our nations, Sally, the true Russian Ambassador would not risk being stranded here if a war should start. No, instead they send a younger man of no importance, and Aleksei to watch over me, of course. I take letters, receive them, transmit messages back and forth between more significant men.”
“I don’t know many postmen who wear fur coats and have apartments.” Sally smiled, trying to bring a similar look to Nikolai, who had turned melancholy as the night drew on.
Thankfully, he gave her a little twitch of the mouth.
“Perhaps my disguise is not so subtle? I should wear short trousers and a satchel?”
Sally chuckled, covering her mouth with her hand.
“You have a very pretty smile, Sally. I do hope that you do not mind my boldness, but you shouldn’t cover it with your hand.”
Reaching out, Nikolai’s fingers brushed Sally’s hand, the slightest touch enough to move it. She found that she was still smiling as he slid his hand underneath hers, and gripped it earnestly as he said:
Someone coughed from the doorway behind them, a deep sound like the firing of cannons. Then again, the sound had issued from the giant Aleksei’s lungs, and so possibly had more than enough power to reduce a castle wall to rubble.
“Ah, will you excuse me?”
Nikolai was gone in a swirl of grey and black fur, leaving Sally to stare out over the city, and touching her hand which would always feel numb to any other sensation than the one she’d just experienced.
“I am so sorry. I have no idea how I let this happen.”
Nikolai stood by the large stone fireplace with a penitent light flickering across his face. He took another sip of his clear alcohol, wincing at the taste. Occasionally Sally’s shoulders would shake as another sob ran through her, but otherwise she was perfectly still, wrapped in her fur cloak like a slumbering cat, face buried I hands.
Nikolai kept looking over at her, then turning his sullen eyes back toward the fire.
“I don’t know what that groomsman said, but I honestly believed that Mister Spencer would never take a servant’s word over mine. It appears that my nationality is more of a problem than I thought. I’m so sorry, Sally.”
He came over and knelt in front of her.
“Please.” He touched a hand lightly onto the mound of fur that covered her back. “Please say something.”
Sally burst up, knocking Nikolai back, his bottom thumping on the carpet.
“I’m done for!” Sally shouted. She advanced on Nikolai who didn’t get up. He just looked at her like a chastised pup from his spot on the floor. “Jobs like that don’t just come along like trains. I had to work hard to get a good position. And now I’m back out on the street with no reference and no money.” She jabbed a finger down at him. “And you, with your kindness and your polite ways, and that lovely smile of yours. Just stop it. That’s not how the world works. It’s dirty and hard work and you damned near die every day of it one way or the other, and you just swan about up here like…like…” Sally let out a frustrated scream, her hands clenched tightly by her side so that she wouldn’t pull at her hair with the unfairness of it all. With her eyes squeezed shut, and body trembling with anger, she didn’t expect it when a pair of gentle arms wrapped around her. Suddenly she was in a soft, warm world that smelled faintly of mothballs but more importantly of a gentle cologne. Even through the fur cloak she could feel Nikolai’s arms, holding her firm but gentle enough that he’d let go if she moved away.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’ll make this right. You can work here. As long as I’m still here, I promise.” Eyes still closed, she turned her head so that her cheek rested against Nikolai’s chest as he continued to talk. “Although, I’ve enjoyed your company tonight, and I’d rather that you didn’t work, but stay because-”
But Sally wasn’t listening to his voice anymore. Pressed against her Russian saviour, her eyes wide, body tense, she heard it for the first time. The hiss and clunk of a mechanism, muffled beneath Nikolai’s clothes.
Sally hadn’t slept a wink. She’d watched from the window of Nikolai’s guest room as the fog crept in from the Thames, slinking through the streets like Egypt’s tenth plague. The stars eventually faded, chased away by the sunrise, and the fog was tinged a sickly yellow as if the streets were overrun by pea soup. But Sally barely noticed. She had lost her livelihood. God only knew what Godfrey had told Mister Spencer to save his job. She daren’t think about what it might do to her reputation. But at least she was here, not there. At least she hadn’t had to go home to her tiny room in the boarding house, lay on the un-mattressed cot, surrounded by peeling walls and the threatening patch of mould beneath the sink. Then again, she hadn’t slept either way, although the bed had four thick posts and a mattress like a cloud, the quilted duvet was thicker than a paving slab, and a gentle heat radiated from the fireplace.
A polite knock at the door startled Sally so that she would have fallen through the window had it been open.
“Hello?” she managed, after a couple of attempts. “Is someone there?”
“It’s me, Ma’am. The maid.”
Sally padded over to the door in her bare feet and opened it a crack. The maid beyond was her own age, her own size; if it weren’t for her dark tresses, the girl could have been Sally herself, right down to the well-worn dress. And she seemed petrified.
“Can I help you?” asked Sally.
Apparently the maid wasn’t ready for that. “Um…no ma’am. I’ve come to help you get dressed.”
Sally’s face must have scrunched up because the maid recoiled.
“Help me dress? Are you pulling my leg?”
“No ma’am, sorry ma’am. I didn’t realise-” The maid tried to make a hasty escape along the corridor, but Sally called out to her.
“No, please, come back.”
The maid froze, and half-turned.
“Please?” Sally said.
Inside the room, the maid studied her toes as Sally paced back and forth. She was still wearing her dress from the day before, the old scraggy thing with worn out knees and stains upon stains. What was she supposed to get dressed into? Finally, she stopped wearing out the rug and turned to the maid.
“All this is so strange,” she said. But the maid didn’t answer. “I don’t really know what to do. What’s your name? Mine’s Sally.”
“Beth, ma’am. Elizabeth, that is. If you prefer.”
“Beth, please look at me,” Sally begged. The young girl obliged, but as if she were regarding a shortening fuse. Sally stepped forward, and could tell that the maid wanted to run again. “Really. Look at me. I’m just the same as you. I shouldn’t be here. And I really need your help.”
Beth wouldn’t sit, but she stayed while Sally told how she’d lost her job, how Nikolai had rescued her from the beastly Godfrey, and how she’d ended up in the guest room of a Russian Ambassador’s chambers. Slowly, Beth warmed, began to talk, and even laugh as the two maids chatted, and pretty soon they were as chummy as you could be in one morning.
“Mister Perov- that is, Nikolai –said I should help you get ready for breakfast,” Beth finally said. Once she had opened up, the maid was actually quite firm. A real Cheapside gal, unlike Sally who had always had a quieter disposition. “We should get you going, or you’ll miss him before he goes out.”
“Get ready with what? Look at me, there’s no un-scruffing a scruff, Beth.”
Both girls laughed, although it didn’t really warm Sally.
“There’s clothes in the wardrobe, left over ones, you see. We can pin something together, I’m sure.”
But all Sally heard was ‘left over’. Left over from when? From whom? From other girls that Nikolia had rescued, brought here. Was Beth one of those girls, forced to stay with no job to go to? Sally had the sinking feeling that she was a stray, picked up off the street and fed, and then sent to sleep by the fire in the kitchen like a mongrel. She’d gotten herself into a proper trifle, it seemed.
Beth touched her hand, and smiled. As if reading her mind, she said: “From the Ambassador’s wife, when she stays, Sally. Mister Perov isn’t like that, far as I can tell. I think he likes you. You’re on the up and up. And I can’t help but be jealous.”
Sally smiled, the tightness in her chest disappeared like a balloon cut loose.
“Oh thank God. I thought-”
“Well don’t. Think no more. Let’s get you dressed.”
Sally had her first bath with taps, hot water that she didn’t have to bring and pour herself, and a ceramic tub that didn’t blister the skin after being by the fire too long. Beth told her which soap was for what (there was more than one bar, and not one of them was shrivelled to a cuttlefish). As Sally dabbed herself dry behind the room divider, Beth came in and out with dresses until they both agreed on a pale blue day dress; simple, elegant and worth more than Sally’s rent, clothing and three month’s wages put together.
“I hope the Ambassador’s wife won’t find out I’ve been wearing her clothes,” Sally said as Beth put her knee into her spine and yanked the corset tight. “Christ!”
“Sorry, had to be done. The Ambassador’s wife is a bigger woman than me and you put together, Sal. This dress fits only where it touches, I’m afraid. Some pins should do the trick.”
Sally smiled at the shortening of her name. Watching Beth scoot around her, a mouthful of tailor’s pins, tucking and pleating, she felt she had to ask the question that’d been plaguing her since the night before.
“Beth, can I ask you something?”
“I’ve seen your bloomers, I think we can ask each other anything, don’t you?” Beth said, through her mouthful of pins.
Sally laughed. “I suppose so. But it’ll seem a bit strange.”
Beth stood up, and took the pins from her mouth.
“You know then?”
Part of Sally’s brain that she didn’t use often must have kicked in, because she nodded, and then felt instantly guilty for the lie.
“Listen, there’s nothing wrong with him,” Beth began, which just made Sally think the opposite. “It’s just one of those things. Like a pair of spectacles. Something you wouldn’t notice, but he needs it to get by. Nothing to worry about.”
Sally nodded again. “Right. Good. I’m glad.” And was none the wiser.
“Ok, let’s get you to breakfast.”
Sally stood beyond the dining room door with her new friend, taking deep breaths while Beth smiled at her, and eventually just shoved her out the door.
There was the dining table, the candelabra, plates, cutlery and steaming tureens. But no Nikolai. She’d missed him.
Beth had to return to her daily chores, and so Sally found herself alone, in a strange place, dressed in another woman’s clothes and feeling as if she might wake up at any moment. She pottered from balcony to bookshelf, chair to chaise, her soft footsteps creating different tones as she wandered over rugs, carpets and richly varnished wooden floors. Finding a book on the small occasional table by the fire, surely Nikolai’s as the alphabet used was only vaguely recognisable, she set it back on a nearby shelf only to knock dust from the top of the tomes around it. Before she could think, Sally had rooted out an old duster from a cupboard in the hall, removed the books and was cleaning.
“Ma’am, please!” A comely maid stood in the doorway, her face washed pale as if she’d caught Sally brandishing a bloody knife rather than a dust rag. And she wasn’t anything like Beth. There was no talking to this one. She came in, set the books straight while Sally stood by with hands clasped politely in front of her, and then was gone again; the parlour’s door clicking closed behind her.
The carriage clock on the mantelpiece chuck-chucked its way through the day. The more Sally thought about it, the louder it grew. The more she tried to ignore it, the more it persisted, until it drowned out even the sound of her own thoughts. The blasted thing wouldn’t even oblige by alternating between tick and tock. Sally swore that it had timed itself with her heartbeat now, or perhaps the other way around. She seemed to feel every jerk of the hands in her neck and shoulders. She would be a twitching idiot by the time Nikolai returned. And then she was thinking of him again, and the odd sound she’d heard through his shirt the night before. She wanted to ask him right out, of course. That was always the best way. And she would have done at breakfast, only Beth had kept her so long getting dressed. Or was that the other way around? Never mind. It would all become clear when she saw him next, she was certain. And the scratching worry at the back of her mind, that something was so fundamentally wrong with all of this loveliness, would finally be laid to rest.
Sally’s fingertips drummed on the chair’s arm.
The day wore on.
Each time she looked up, the sun seemed fixed in the sky, the clock face was unmoved, the universe ground to a halt around her.
Finally, the parlour door sighed open.
It seemed another age before Nikolai floated in, his face a ghastly pale and his knuckles the matching shade as they grasped an ivory envelope. Like a character on a Swiss clock, he removed his coat woodenly and laid it over the back of a chair as the carriage clock above the mantelpiece chimed midday. He stood for a good while, plucking invisible pieces of lint from his wool suit, or straightening his cuffs. When he finally looked up, Sally could have sworn she saw a glimmer of light on his cheek as if there had been moisture there a moment ago. But when he saw her, sat by the fire in a lady’s dress, the light seemed to grow in his eyes. Still, his soft smile seemed a struggle to hold.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
Sally had to look down at herself to think why he’d say such a thing. The Ambassador’s wife’s dress, of course. The way Beth had curled and pinned her hair. The touch of rouge across her cheeks and narrow bosom. But when Nikolai strode across the room and knelt beside her, fast enough to startle her, and he took her hand in both of his, it was her eyes that he stared into.
“Sally, forgive me.”
And here it came. The moment when the dream broke and Sally realised the world was once again as hard as it had always been, and all of this wonder was about to end. Sally closed her eyes to receive it. She couldn’t look into the sweet, narrow face of her Russian rescuer while he broke her in two.
“I should never have left without saying goodbye this morning.” Sally’s eyes snapped open as Nikolai continued: “It was rude of me, and I am deeply sorry. If it weren’t an urgent appointment that I had to keep, I would have never left-”
Sally let out the burning breath that she didn’t realise she’d been holding.
“-But to come home to find you still here, and just as perfect as I left you, it gives my fleeting days a sense of permanence I never thought I would experience.”
“Nikolai,” Sally finally managed to say, “what do you mean? You say some odd things and I never really know what to say.”
Nikolai smiled again, and again it seemed heavy as if he were moving through quicksand. He reached out and touched her face, cupping her cheek in his narrow palm.
“Please, do not worry. My ramblings are little but random thoughts lost in the translation between my Russian mind and English tongue. But with each conversation we share, I feel more fluent. Come, let’s take a drink to the balcony. I have much to tell you.”
Nikolai served them both a glass of the clear liquor, which Sally really had to learn the name of, and glugged one before refilling it, and meeting Sally outside.
London was in full flow, hissing and chugging, whirring and stomping its way through the day. Sally watched her city as it sped by on the spot. She had seen it give riches and steal livelihoods, produce and create, graft and grow. She’d seen it swallow people whole. And onward it went, despite it all. She wondered if it would ever falter, or even change all that much; or whether for all the dirigibles and locomotives, the cobbles would remain the same.
Looking to Nikolai where he sipped his second drink with a little more control, she wondered if he was thinking the same. His face had reverted to that ashen colour, his eyes glinted with a slight moisture that would become tears very soon. Was he so moved by what he saw?
Through a voice which seemed to be abandoning him as he spoke, Nikolai finally broke the silence.
“I have to share some news with you, Sally, which I learnt today. You remember I said that I had an urgent appointment?”
He waited for Sally to nod, or perhaps for his voice to regain some of its strength.
“I was called to an ambassadorial meeting by Mister Spencer. Every country’s representatives were there. I was the only Russian, of course, as they made Aleksei wait outside. But the disagreements between our countries have finally- I must think of the phrase- come to a head? The British are moving into the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and claiming it for their own. Russia, of course, has interests there also.”
Sally finally took a sip of her drink, forcing the harsh liquid down her throat and managing not to cough. Her chest burnt with it.
“There’s going to be trouble?”
“A war,” said Nikolai. “Yes.”
“And I suppose you have to go home?”
Nikolai was silent for a moment. He drained his glass.
Sally finally smiled. “They’re letting you stay? That’s wonderful. You said that you wanted to, didn’t you? To stay here?”
Nikolai took her hands in his.
“Again, not quite. Please, listen to me for a moment and I will explain.” He took a deep breath, and one more look at the city before turning to Sally. He took in her face, and smiled that wan smile. “I am to stay in England. But not as a free man. I am Russian, and we are the enemy. I have been allowed to return here, briefly. But I must return to the custody of your police force by tomorrow morning. Two constables are stationed outside the building to ensure that I don’t- take a trip.”
“But you’ve done nothing wrong, Nikolai. They can’t arrest you without a crime, surely?”
“Arrest? No. But I will be under guard, under watch, and my movements will be restricted to only a small area of London and never alone. Sally, you-” he hesitated for a moment, giving another deep sigh as he prepared himself to speak. “-you have come to me at the most perfect and yet terrible time I could have hoped. We Russians aren’t famed for our romance, or our poetry, not even in our own language. What we are famous for is our abrupt natures.” He laughed “Perhaps Aleksei would be even better at this than myself.”
Sally decided to let him speak in his own time. It took an aeon of seconds before he spoke again: “Well, perhaps one will outweigh the other. You are wonderful, Sally. A beautiful, honest girl. And I have become very fond of you. If things could be different, I would have asked you to come back to Russia with me when I went home.”
Sally’s breath caught in her throat. She tried to speak but every part of her body seemed to be fighting her. She could stand there and heave silent sobs at the unfairness of it all or-
She threw herself forward, wrapping Nikolai with her arms, and pressed herself as close to him as she could. Nikola rocked a little on his heels, but welcomed her to him, and held her as he had the night before in a perfect cocoon of safety.
Sounds like a rooting pig came from the parlour, furniture moving, books being dropped, followed by the hulking figure of Aleksei in the doorway holding a large duffle bag in one shovel-like hand and a smaller sack in the other.
He grunted like a beast when he saw the two of them embracing on the balcony.
Nikolai took Sally by the shoulders and finally pulled them away.
“Aleksei thinks we should run,” he said. “But I don’t think I can.”
Sally surprised herself by how little she felt like weeping. Instead, she was filled with a cold elation, tingling with fresh emotions but all too aware that her happiness would be brief.
“He’s right, Nikolai. You have to go. You have to try.” She tried to smile but could only produce a firm nod.
From the doorway, Aleksei said something in his mother tongue.
Nikolai smiled. “He says ‘thank God someone has some sense’.”
Sally gave the huge Russian a weak smile, and he quirked a heavy eyebrow in return; the only facial expression other than anger she’d ever seen him display.
“But I can’t. It’s my decision and I can’t leave when you and I have just met. Some things are worth the risk-”
Sally stabbed her finger at Nikolai, the tip hitting something harder than flesh beneath his shirt. “No. You have to go. Aleksei, keep him safe. Make him go.”
Aleksei grunted and barrelled forward. He tossed the small sack into Nikolai’s unsuspecting arms and grabbed the younger man by his coat sleeve, dragging him back through the parlour.
“What are you doing? Let me go!” Nikolai protested, and followed it with a stream of Russian which Aleksei ignored. Sally watched as the younger man struggled in vain, trying to fight his way back to her.
“Just go, Nikolai. Please. Be safe.”
Fighting to stay upright as he was borne away, Nikolai struggled and Aleksei had to lift him from his feet. In the jerk of the lift, Nikolai’s coat tore with a noise that sounded exactly how Sally felt. But Aleksei didn’t seem to care. The parlour door swung back on its hinges, and slammed closed behind them.
The room was silent again, as if Sally had imagined the whole thing. She slumped into an armchair, the folds of her dress puffing out around her feet. There was only the damned carriage clock drilling its beat into her head. From elsewhere in the apartment, she heard the sounds of rummaging, doors opening and closing and Nikolai’s muffled protests, but she didn’t rise. It was easier to sit and cry than to say goodbye again. Soon the noises died down and she realised that they were gone, he was gone. Through the servant’s entrance, perhaps, or the cellar; running like a common criminal. Her Russian saviour had fled. And finally, she thought of herself. She had lost her job, had no idea where her own clothes were, if the maids had been sent home or if Beth would come find her. And she’d lost Nikolai, without really having him at all. Wiping her wet cheeks on a handkerchief, Sally’s eyes finally cleared enough that she could look around her, and she spotted something on the carpet.
The clock key, the one Nikolai wore around his neck, lay surrounded by its broken silver chain as if woven into the carpet’s pattern.
Sally made her way over and plucked it from where it lay. She shook her head. What was so special about that damn carriage clock? Like Nikolai must have done every day, Sally approached his favourite clock and swung open the little glass dome which protected the face. There were three holes where the key had to prime the mechanism in order. Sally went from one to the other to wind the clock. But the key wouldn’t fit. And finally she took a good look at the key itself; small, with a winged head like a normal clock key. But when she spied down the key’s triangular barrel, she could see hundreds of complex notches and ridges; far too intricate for a simple parlour clock.
In a vortex of whirling memory and realisation, Sally’s face fell slack. Just like a pair of spectacles. He needs it to get by. Nothing to worry about. Sally screamed and was pelting down the corridor, the stairs, and into the maid’s quarters before she regained any of her senses.
Beth, who was packing her things into an old sack, span right around, slamming her back against the wall as Sally burst through the door.
“Christ Almighty, Sally-”
“He needs it,” Sally yelled, and brandished the key. “Beth! Quick!”
Beth didn’t even bother to swear. She darted forward, grabbing Sally’s arm and dragging her down a narrow flight of steps, dangerously swift, into the cellar.
“It’s here somewhere. I know it is,” she muttered, as Sally stood by, the key’s chain clasped in her fist until her fingers were purple. Beth moved back and forth, searching the floor. “Bugger me, where is it?”
She let out a yelp as her foot hit something protruding from the floor.
Throwing herself down, the maid seemed to have lost her marbles as she plucked at the ground with her strong fingers.
Sally shuddered all over like a plucked cello string. Her face and neck were tense that she could feel her own pulse throbbing. She tried to question the maid but her throat was too tight to squeeze out a sound.
Beth came to her knees with a small iron ring in her hand, which she yanked on. Nothing happened.
“Sally, give me a hand,” she snapped.
Both women grabbed the ring, straining to lift a circular stone cover which revealed a pit beneath it. Sally perched herself on the edge without a second thought, drawing her skirts around her and prepared to drop. She took a last look at her friend.
“Hurry, Sally. I won’t tell. Don’t worry.”
Her mind blank with panic, Sally just nodded and dropped into darkness. The last thing she heard was Beth dragging the stone cover back into place, with a whispered:
And Sally was thrown into a staggering darkness. Looking around her soon turned to panic when she realised she might as well have her eyes closed. One hand brushed a brick wall, clammy with underground damp. The ground was slippery and gritty under her slippers. But other than that, she was lost. Pressing her back to the clammy wall she tried to settle her heart, and as she did so, the dimmest of lights became apparent as her eyes finally adjusted. It was only the vaguest hint of a glow, but enough that she could now see the shadowy edges of the tunnel’s shape. At the very least, she now had a direction to travel.
With Nikolai’s key still gripped tight like a talisman against the dark arts, Sally walked slowly at first, hand trailing the wall, picking up speed as the light grew and grew. The faint glow became rusty red, then orange and finally a bright gas lamp glow which Sally had to wince against. Turning a corner in the tunnel, she could finally take stock of it. It had been a sewer once, she thought, with a curved roof and the faint scent of offal still lingering about. A troupe of rats scuttled by, en route to some dinner party. But Sally barely noticed them. There were only two certainties in London, and those were Death and Rats. Neither were particularly troubling anymore. Now that she’d turned the corner, and could see, apparently it was going to be much easier. Small gas lamps, high on the tunnel’s wall, lit the rest of the way with a steady glow.
Sally ploughed on. God only knew where she was going. She was completely turned around and lost with no streets or parks or squares to mark her way, but she carried on anyway. Once or twice she caught the smell of a musky cologne. Aleksei. Although the air would barely stir down there so whether that was a good or bad sign, she didn’t know. Straining her ears, she couldn’t hear footsteps of Nikolai’s protests in the distance. Perhaps he’d stopped protesting at all. Perhaps he realised he’d escaped and forgotten about Sally already.
She shook herself, cursed under her breath, even though there was no one around to hear her, and just kept going.
Several alcoves were buried into the tunnel walls, some lit and some not, some containing their own offshoot tunnels and others blanked by stone. The more branch tunnels she passed, Sally grew wary that she could be going entirely the wrong way. Then she’d smell that musky, donkey-like odour of Aleksei, and her heart would settle for a while. Eventually she smelled something else, something even more familiar and unmistakeable, a scent that she’d lived with so long that she hardly noticed it anymore; until she needed it. On a faint breeze which hiccupped its way down the tunnel, Sally caught the smell of the Thames. Her feet went double-time. The tunnel finally ended at a rusted old access ladder which Sally took upward. She had no idea how long she’d been in the tunnel, minutes or hours, but the sunlight was strong enough to sting her eyes when she shouldered aside the manhole cover and emerged onto the pier.
Men in overalls were everywhere, hauling, lifting, shifting and stacking crates of all sizes and shapes from the crane of a moored freighter. They worked unaware of the war that had been set in motion just minutes away in an airy hall; a war that would take some or all of them away from their jobs and onto the front line. And they were unaware of the fact that Sally’s saviour, her fresh love, was escaping to his homeland. But they all stopped dead in their work as if they did understand, or simply to watch a pretty lady in a pale blue dress emerge from the sewer like a frosty tulip in the mud.
But Sally paid them no mind. She now knew exactly where she was in London, but Nikolai could have been dragged any direction on the compass and she had no way of knowing which. But a rupturing blast from a ship’s horn cut through the rising panic, lifting Sally’s attention enough to spin her around.
Just starting to move with a rumble of propellers and shudder of its whale-like hull, a freighter slid along the quay. Shading her eyes, Sally took in the hulking machine, where she spotted a series of obscure sigils on the ship’s side; an alphabet both familiar and alien, the one she’d seen in Nikolai’s book. The ship was Russian. Probably the last vessel of its kind that would go in or out of London’s docklands for as long as the war continued. And at the aft railing, as if trying to linger for as long as he possibly could, his coat whip-cracking in the wind, stood Nikolai. Although she couldn’t make out his face from distance and the sunlight behind him, Sally knew it was him. It had to be. And as a brutish figure came up beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder, Sally let out an elated yelp that wasn’t quite Nikolai’s name.
But it was enough. The two figures turned back in her direction. One gripped the railing, leaning over dangerously, and yelled something over the roar of engines. Aleksei’s hulking shape disappeared as Sally began to run, hoisting her skirts. But she couldn’t keep pace with the freighter. Letting out a frustrated grunt, she tore at the dress’ skirts where Beth’s pins held it to her slender frame, ripping them free to drop onto the salty pier. In seconds only the pale blue corset and Sally’s own plain white underskirt remained, and she was running again; this time with nothing to hold her back.
The ship was building momentum. Sally was fit from her manual labour, but not enough to maintain pace with such powerful engines. Soon, what progress she’d made running alongside the ship slid away.
The buoyancy aid hit her square in the chest as she ran, and only a defensive reflex made her grab for it. The large white ring, attached by a rope to the ship’s aft railing, tugged as the ship pulled away, slipping in her fingers. Some deep part of Sally was thinking fast enough that she held on as it tugged, and jumped as the ring cleared the end of peer. As it swung out over the river, Sally fought for purchase on the rope, the buoy, anything, and finally managed to slip her leg through the ring. But it was still swinging toward the steel cliff of the ship’s aft, water churning below like a submerged meat grinder, and picking up speed. Sally gritted her teeth and tensed every part of her body, willing herself to be adhesive as the rubber ring hit the ship’s side, and bounced. She jerked where she sat, but managed to hold on, and the thudding collision stopped the rope’s swing almost entirely. When she opened her stinging eyes, the churning water was moving away, and she was rising, up and up, past rows of rivets on steel.
When she reached the top, an immense hand came down on her and plucked her from the ring like an eagle hunting a dormouse. Set down on her feet on the juddering ship’s deck, she barely had time to look up before Nikolai collided with her, swooping his arms around her, and kissing her shocked face from cheeks to forehead to chin and garbling in Russian.
Sally pulled herself away, just enough that she could breathe but not enough to break the safety of the embrace, and lifted Nikolai’s key.
“You forgot this.”
Nikolai’s face collapsed into a belated panic. His hand shot to his chest as if he didn’t believe the reality of the object before him.
“You’ve saved my life,” he whispered.
And then Aleksei was on them both, the huge man engulfing them in his arms, lifting them both effortlessly from the ground, and everyone was laughing and laughing as the ship pulled free of London’s smoking landscape.
Hope you enjoyed it, everyone! Who knows where Sally and Nikolai will end up next, eh?
Thanks for reading.