“There's someone out there.”
Simon straightened, the waves washing up against his shins. He squinted, trying to see what the German soldier had noticed, and put a dripping hand over his eyes to shade from the sun. “Nobody could survive these temperatures-”
And there it was. A figure, stumbling out of the surf.
Simon broke into a run behind the soldier, pelting across the beach. They kicked up sand as they ran, and the soldier reached the figure first. Simon grabbed a flailing arm, and as his fingers closed around slippery, sandy skin, he realised it was a girl.
He very nearly dropped her back into the surf, but together they managed to drag her free of the ocean waters and collapsed onto the sand. Simon breathed hard. It had been awhile since he had run that quickly, and he was already feeling it. The soldier made a noise and Simon jerked back. The lady was completely starkers save her ink black hair pressed to dark skin.
Simon and the soldier were both struggling out of their overcoats instinctively when she suddenly surged up from the ground, fingers grasping for Simon. Her hands closed around the neck of his shirt and drew tight, her momentum sending them both to the ground. Simon hit the wet, packed sand with a choked grunt, her hands pressing against his windpipe.
The soldier gripped her arm, intent on prying her off, and he didn't have to try. She spun on him with a feral cry and launched herself at him. He ducked under her wild swings and deftly caught her wrists. Simon pushed himself upright, gasping, and scrambled to his feet.
“Don't hurt her,” he said hoarsely. “She's frightened!”
The soldier said nothing, and threw his shoulder into her. She went down on her side with a grunt, and he twisted her arms until she howled. She writhed on the sand, noises that were not human issuing from her throat.
“There are handcuffs on my belt. If you would,” the soldier said to Simon.
“You carry handcuffs with you?” Simon asked incredulously. The soldier glared at him, saying nothing else, both his hands twisted around the lady's. Simon shifted around them, trying not to look anywhere inappropriate as he knelt and found the cuffs attached at the soldier's belt.
The solder managed to wrangle the cuffs onto the woman and he stood, leaving her on the ground.
“Who is she?” Simon asked. He glanced out onto the Channel. “I don't see ships or anything. Where did she come from? She couldn't have swum very far. The water this time of year is unforgiving.”
“I don't know.” The soldier crouched and drew her hair back from her eyes. “She's Oriental. We'll take her to the consulate and let them deal with her.”
“We must get her clothes first,” Simon said. “She can't walk around like this.”
He removed his outer coat and draped it over the lady as the soldier started to pull her from the ground. She broke away from him and lashed out with her heel, catching Simon firmly in the stomach. He gasped, the air thoroughly punched from his being, and dropped to his knees. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the soldier deliver a cruel blow to the lady's head and send her unconscious to the sand.
“Are you all right?”
“You struck her,” Simon said around wheezing gasps for air.
“She struck you,” the soldier said curtly. “I am tasked as your liaison and guard. Any attack on your person must be dealt with.”
“Don't do it again,” Simon said. He waved away the soldier's hand up and got to his feet with effort. His stomach felt as if the skin was being pulled taut. He hoped there wasn't lasting damage. “Let's take her to the lab. We can find something for her to wear there.”
“The samples, sir,” the soldier reminded him. Simon trotted back to their original vantage point and retrieved the dishes and ocean samples they had originally come to collect. By the time he returned, the soldier had the lady in his arms, covered by both their outer coats. Simon nodded his approval, and followed the soldier back up the beach to their motor car.
He put the lady into the back seat, and moved himself to the passenger door. Simon himself slid into the driver's seat and clasped his goggles over his eyes. “To the lab, then?” he asked.
“The consulate. We have to drop her off,” the soldier said.
Simon frowned. “We can't leave her in the consulate with no clothes. It's not proper.”
“For all we know, she's an escaped slave,” the soldier said. “It's best to wash our hands of her as soon as we can. There's enough trouble without being embroiled in some noble's turf war.”
“I'm not doing it,” Simon said. “It's not proper, and it's not right. We're going to the lab to dress her, and then we can decide what to do with her. Maybe when she's calmed she'll be able to speak properly.” He kicked the motor car into action and carefully steered away from the beach.
“I strongly advise against this course of action, sir,” the soldier said over the sound of wind rushing past them on the road. “I will have to file a report with my superiors if she is taken to the research laboratory.”
“I'll write your report,” Simon said, annoyed that the man was concerned over such a trivial matter. “This is someone's life we're talking about. Not some... mathematical equation. She requires concern and proper care.”
“We don't know who she is,” the soldier repeated, as if Simon hadn't understood him the first time. The soldier's accent was thick, but not indecipherable.
“We are duty bound as gentlemen to assist ladies in distress. Clearly, she is in distress,” Simon said, daring to remove his eyes from the road for a brief moment to glance at his assigned partner. “She washed up on shore of the English Channel. And while the weather is considerably warmer in the summer, it is not warm enough to warrant a brisk swim. Surely you understand.”
“I understand that women can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than men,” the man said, his shaded goggles staring straight ahead of them onto the horizon. “And strange women especially so.”
Simon shook his head. The lady was deserving of protection whether she had killed someone or not. She was in need of assistance. He was duty bound to provide such assistance.
The remainder of the trip to the lab was a quiet one. The soldier seemed inclined to do nothing more to hinder Simon's crusade to find the strange woman something to cover herself with. She had woken by the time they arrived, and Simon let the soldier try to wrestle her from the backseat of the car.
“You realise that there is a chance she speaks neither English nor German,” the soldier said, lifting her easily from the car. She tucked her face into his shoulder, and he glanced at her, surprised. She made no move to fight out of his grasp, and hung shivering in his arms.
“I had thought about the possibility,” Simon lied. He straightened his shoulders and walked towards his temporary laboratory. The soldier followed behind him with his burden. Hot summer heat washed into the cool darkness of their lab, stuffy from the windows being drawn for the better part of the week but cooler than the streets.
“Bloody heat,” Simon swore softly as they made their way to Simon's temporary research room. He had been given a small, off to the side residence in the building for the entirety of his stay with the program. It was free lodging, and there were a few brilliant cafes across the street, so Simon could never complain about lack of wonderful food. If he had to admit, he vastly preferred German food to British. The Germans were much more creative with their seasonings.
The soldier sat the lady on Simon's bed, and crouched by her knees. “My name is Karl,” he said in British first. “Do you understand?”
The lady stared at him. He repeated the phrase in German to the same result. No response save a confused, blank stare. Karl turned to Simon, who was also staring. He had quite forgotten the man's name.
“She doesn't understand.”
“Obviously,” Simon said. “Maybe she just doesn't like you. You did, after all, bash her in the face on the beach.”
“Protecting you,” Karl said sharply, rising. Simon threw his hands in the air. Karl growled and followed Simon's motions with a fierce gaze. “Get her clothes and let's get her to the consulate. We've already wasted enough time.”
“What time? The only thing we have to do is start the tests in motion. It could take weeks for the results to come back anyway,” Simon said. He dragged a clean (hopefully) shirt from a dresser drawer and held it out to the lady. She stared at it balefully. “You can wear it,” Simon clarified.
She took the cloth and held it loosely in her hands, observing it before letting it fall to the floor. Karl snickered maliciously.
“I'll see if my sister has anything she can borrow,” Karl said. “My mother's home is just on the other side of the block.” He dipped into an informal bow and took his leave.
Leaving Simon alone with the strange, mute, Oriental lady.
“It would be much appreciated if you could put this on,” Simon said, picking the shirt up from the ground. He held it out to her again and she shook her head at him, pushing it away. “Please.”
He tried as many languages as he could manage. French, Latin, German, Spanish, English. Nothing. She barely blinked at him the entire time, staring at him as if he were the one who had washed up starkers on the shoreline.
“It really is necessary that you wear something,” Simon said. He took her wrist lightly between his fingers and tried to slide her arm through the sleeve of the shirt.
She reacted strongly, lashing out with her elbow and catching him in the jaw. He stumbled, and pain exploded from his face. He brought a hand up to his lips and they came away stained red. All the sound in the room whited out save his rasping breaths, and colour escaped his vision as he tumbled to the floor.
His cheek stung viciously, and the pain helped him struggled to wakefulness. He blinked, and his eyes focused on the ceiling of his laboratory.
“Are you with me, doctor?” Karl hovered over him, taking Simon's chin in hand. “What happened?”
“She hit me,” Simon said with effort. Hit him and-
“She didn't hit you hard enough to knock you unconscious,” Karl said. “You're barely even bleeding.”
“I don't-” Simon pushed himself up, away from Karl. “I don't like blood.”
“Did you pass out at the sight of your own blood?” Karl asked, amusement clear in his voice. Simon felt heat rise to his cheeks and did not deign to answer. “Where is the girl?”
“The lady is-” Simon glanced at the bed to find it vacant. “Gone.”
“Great. That's it, then. We don't have anything to worry about. Someone else will find her.” Karl stood and offered a hand to Simon. Simon ignored it and got to his feet, brushing off his shirt and trousers. A few spots of red showed on his shirt and he swallowed back nausea threatening him.
“We have to find her,” Simon said.
“Wipe your lip,” Karl said, tossing him a wet handkerchief. “We have no responsibility for her. Why should we chase after her? She clearly did not want to be here, and she has already distracted you from your purpose here, doctor.”
“I cannot continue my research until I know she is safe with people who will care for her,” Simon said. “As long as her plight is praying on my mind, I can't properly focus on my research. It is in your best interests to aid me in retrieving her.”
Karl pinched his eyes shut and touched his forehead. “We don't have the slightest idea where she went. Where would we even begin?”
“The ocean,” Simon said without hesitation. “She'll return to what's familiar to her.”
“The thing that very nearly killed her? I doubt it. If I were her, I would be running in the exact opposite direction.” Karl sighed and waved his hand. “Lead on, Herr Doktor.”
Simon led them back to his motor car and drove them through the streets of Berlin at night. The candlelights made the city gleam with an unnatural hue, and Simon ignored the goosebumps crawling over his arms as the night wind rushed through his hair.
True to his hunch, they pulled up to the sand dunes to see a lone figure standing on the beach. It was their wayward charge, facing the water. The ocean breeze lifted her hair from her back, revealing her extremely exposed body.
“This is a bad idea,” Karl said. “I've got a bad feeling about this.”
“She needs help,”Simon said. There was nothing else to it. He was going to help her.
He hopped from the car and made his way slowly to her side. The moon shone upon the water, illuminating the heavens around them and turning the sands into powdered silver.
“Please,” Simon said, standing beside her. She turned to him, moonlight catching tears on her cheeks. “Please let me help you.”
He held out his hand to her. She reached for his fingers, and let her trembling hand close around his. With a smile, he pulled her closer, wrapping an arm around her to try and shield her from the chill night air. They climbed back up to the car where Karl waited, arms over his chest.
They drove back to the lab without a word amongst them, and Karl swiftly and efficiently tugged an undergown over the lady's head, pinning it back with expertise.
“What shall we call her?” Simon asked as he watched Karl work. The man had talents Simon hadn't dreamed of in a hired killer.
“She's your pet. You name her,” Karl said around a pin clenched in his teeth. Simon scowled.
“She is not my pet. She is a human being. We drew her from the water. I think we should called her Nimue,” Simon said. “The Lady of the Lake.”
“The one who destroyed Merlin,” Karl said. He straightened and gathered the lady's long hair in both hands. “We must do something about this. It's going to attract too much attention hanging free.”
“You know quite a lot about women's fashion,” Simon pointed out slyly. “Perhaps there is something you're not telling me?”
“I looked after my sister,” Karl said, in a voice that shuttered the conversation as surely as if he had yelled. Simon fell quiet. Karl dragged his fingers through Nimue's hair, attempting to smooth it down to be tied back. “It's encrusted with salt from the Channel. She needs a bath.”
Simon flushed, certain Karl could see his face glowing in the candlelight. “We certainly can't give her a bath.”
“Your sense of propriety is excessive,” Karl said. “She has a marking.”
“Pardon?” Simon moved a bit closer.
“She's been marked.” Karl placed a palm over the small of Nimue's back, now covered by undergarments.
“I don't understand.”
“Some savage cultures use bones needles to place ink underneath skin, and create a permanent image on the body,” Karl said. “She has such markings.”
Simon fought back the burst of anxiety at the idea of being stabbed with needles of ink, and swallowed hard. “That will surely help us find the people she belongs to.”
“Hopefully. It's too late now. The consulate will have closed its doors. We'll have to try in the morning.” Karl let Nimue's hair fall straight against her back. He pressed a light touch to her shoulder. “Lay down. Rest.”
She complied without a word, and Karl drew the coverlet over her. He and Simon left the small room, and Simon closed the door quietly behind them.
“The architects want you to see their models tomorrow,” Karl said, picking up one of the scale models on the table. He turned it over in his hands. “They have questions about the design.”
“I thought I explained everything in the blueprints,” Simon said. “There's not much room for questions. A leak and the entire crew is dead.”
“From what I gathered, they were concerned about firing shells from the ship. Your design doesn't leave room for traditional weapons. They were hoping you'd be able to design something that would work underwater,” Karl said.
“There are not guns on my ship for a reason,” Simon said. He took the model from Karl's hands and placed it back on the table top. “Weapons were not in the requirements for the build.”
“It was assumed,” Karl said. “Probably wrongly so. The Generals want to see a new blueprint before we tour the build site tomorrow.”
“I'm not putting weapons on my ship,” Simon said. “You hired me to design a self-sustaining underwater vehicle. You never said anything about making it fight.”
“Your paycheck come from the German armed forces,” Karl said. “What did you think we wanted you to do?”
Simon scowled, rounding the table to grab several of his designs, ones that had been implemented by builders in the dockyards. He held them up and caught Karl's eye. In one swift motion, he tore the papers down the centre, destroying the images and schematics on the pages.
“Stop!” Karl said sharply, holding his hand out. “What are you doing?”
“I won't let my designs be used for warfare,” Simon said. “I do not design machines of destruction.”
“Your designs are already sitting in the bay,” Karl said. “You'll lose your funding if you don't give them what they want. They'll find someone else.”
“Who else is there?” Simon asked. “Who else specialises in contained environments? Nobody. I'm the only one who's ever conceived of this. If they don't want their ships, they don't have to have their ships. I can guarantee you, though, you'll not find someone else who is capable of designing perpetuating environs. It's a brand new field, and there aren't many in it yet.”
“We'll see what the Generals say tomorrow,” Karl said in warning. “You don't have to be a specialist in closed environments to attach a canon to the outside of a ship.”
“No, but you have to be well knowledged in balance and fluid dynamics. Brown's only just discovered how closely water correlates to the motion of the air, and who had him for a teacher? I did. I am the only person qualified for the job description.” Simon stalked over to the table where he designed most of his things. He swept everything off it and onto the floor, sending papers spinning in every direction. “These are my designs. Mine.”
“You sold your rights to the designs when you signed your contract-”
“No!” Simon's voice rose. “These designs are for exploration only. They are to be building blocks for humans to explore the depths of the ocean and live there someday. They are not for killing.”
“Man will always create ways to kill,” Karl said ominously. Simon glowered at him. Karl sighed finally. “I'll talk to them. I don't know how they're going to take it. They will most likely order you to continue your work and include weapons in the design.”
“I will continue to refuse,” Simon said, resting one hand on his work desk. Karl shrugged.
“I do not require your opinions,” Simon said. “I'll keep her here for tonight. Hopefully she won't try and run away in her undergarments. Thank you for your help today.”
Karl bowed slightly and left them. Simon sighed, grabbed a blanket from the supply closet. After a moment's hesitation at the door to Nimue’s room, he twisted the lock and bedded down just outside the entrance. If she tried to leave during the night, he would know.
The next morning, Nimue poked him awake with the remnants of the doorknob. She had not only picked the lock, but removed the entire handle from the heavy oaken door. Simon gaped at her as she stepped over him and into the laboratory proper, once again starkers save her veil of dark hair.
Simon grabbed up the bits of metal from the doorknob and trailed after Nimue. “How did you do that?” he asked.
Nimue paused, turning just long enough to send him an icy glare, before continuing on her tour of the laboratory. She reached the observation tank and a slow smile lifted her lips. She trailed her hand along the surface as she circled it.
“Please be careful-” Simon started. Nimue picked up the model u-boat and turned it over in her hands. “Um. It swims in the ocean like a whale.”
“Please,” Nimue said.
Simon froze, halted in his motion towards her. “Excuse me?”
“Me,” Nimue said, lifting her eyes to meet his.
“Do you understand me?” Simon asked hesitantly.
“Me,” Nimue repeated firmly.
“Okay. You can speak, but we have to teach your comprehension,” Simon said, approaching her. “That's wonderful!”
“What is wonderful? She's naked again.” Karl entered the laboratory, fresh-faced and well-rested after a night in his own bed. Simon squashed the jealousy and the subsequent feeling of homesickness that swelled behind it.
“She speaks,” Simon said. “She's been listening to our conversations. She's said a few words before you got here.”
“So she can be taught,” Karl surmised. Simon nodded. “Not to wear clothes, though.”
“You try getting her into something decent,” Simon said, folding his arms over his chest. “She hit me the last time.”
Karl called to Nimue in German, and she moved to him, gliding across the floor with unnecessary grace. He gently took her wrist and led her to Simon's room, closing the door behind them. Simon ignored the exclusion and put himself in front of a workbench to try and concentrate with a strange woman in the next room over.
He sorted the samples they had collected the day before and pulled out the ones he needed for testing. Various materials were water resistant, but it was hard to find something water tight that would adhere under complete submersion in brine water. The salt tended to grate against materials and cause catastrophic breaches in time.
“Sir, what happened to the door knob?” Karl asked, returning to the room.
“She took it off,” Simon said. “While I was sleeping. I guess she didn't like that I locked the door to keep her in. At least she came out that way instead of through the window. We'd be chasing her down again.”
Karl stared at Nimue as she made her way around the laboratory. “She learned an entire phrase in German while we were in there,” he said. “She's brilliant.”
Simon turned his lips down. “She is a woman, and Oriental at that. She may be just mimicking you.”
“Women can be brilliant,” Karl said in a low voice.
“If women were brilliant they'd be in dignified professions,” Simon said, setting his samples down to face Karl. “Men are biologically more clever. It's been proven.”
“She may prove you wrong,” Karl said with a nod towards Nimue. Simon followed his gaze to see Nimue handling one of their model u-boats.
“Careful with that,” Simon said, hurrying across the lab to her. She darted out of his reach when he tried to take it from her, and danced just out of grabbing distance, keeping a table between them so Simon couldn't reach her. “Please, put that down.”
She held up the model, one of his more recent designs, and without so much as a blink, snapped off one of the side stabilizers.
“Stop!” Simon lurched at her, snatching it from her hands. She scowled at him, pushing back. She dug her fingers into his elbow and took the model back, removing the stabilizer from the other side until all that was left was the rear rudder. Simon watched helplessly as she dropped the model into the testing tank.
“Wait, sir. Look.” Karl approached, turning the crank on the water movement device. It was supposed to mimic the ocean currents. Nimue held the modified u-boat in position as the generated currents swept over it. “It's a smoother course.”
Simon stared at the particles in the water, shifting around the boat more uniformly than before. “She's improved it,” Simon said breathlessly. “Good God.”
“What do you know of underwater boats?” Karl asked, his voice steely as he regarded Nimue. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you know of our research? Where did you learn that?”
“She could be a spy,” Karl said, stepping back from the table crank. He drew a small hand gun from his side holster and levelled it at Nimue.
“Karl! For the love of God, put that away. She hasn't hurt anyone,” Simon said urgently. He stepped between them, hands in the air. “Don't do something you're going to regret.”
“I do not think I would regret it,” Karl said, staring past Simon's shoulder. Nimue said nothing. “If she is a spy, she must be dealt with. The Chinese embassy must be notified. I have procedure, sir.”
“If she was a spy, why would she improve our model?” Simon asked, hoping to reason with Karl. “She just helped us. No spy would assist their enemy nation.”
“I need to report it,” Karl said. “Regardless.”
“Fine. Put the gun away and report it.” Simon stepped closer to Karl until he lowered the weapon and holstered it. “We need not resort to violence.”
“Violence and the threat of violence are two extremely different things, doctor,” Karl said. He snapped the collar of his shirt into place and tucked his heels together. “If you'll excuse me. I need to make a call.”
“You can call me Simon,” Simon said. He waved to his room, where the phone was. Karl nodded and took his leave.
Nimue was fingering the model u-boat curiously, running her hands over its surface, observing each inch of it's build. She narrowed her eyes at it, wiggling all the moving parts.
“We're using it to explore the ocean,” Simon said. He knew she could not understand him, but something about her features made him feel she was smarter than she let on. Perhaps she was pretending to be unable to speak English or German. Perhaps Karl was correct, and she was a spy.
Such a pretty spy.
Karl returned to them. “They'll be coming to collect her shortly,” he announced. Simon nodded, wondering at the sharp feeling of remorse at the news. They didn't know her. She was nothing to them except a strange girl who washed up on shore and fixed their boat design...
“It is odd to find an Oriental woman this brilliant,” Simon said, musing. “If she is not a spy, perhaps she could join our team?”
“Do not speak in delusions,” Karl said. “She will be sent back where she came from.”
“It's just a bloody shame,” Simon said wistfully. “She's so pretty.”
“Those make the best spies,” Karl said. “Men let their guard down too easily around women.”
Nimue's head jerked, her eyes flitting to the door. Before Simon could move, she had retreated to the bedroom. Simon opened his mouth, but his unasked question was answered when Karl's men knocked on the door and demanded entrance in German.
Karl opened the door and hesitated. “Who are you?” he asked in his native language. The temperature in the room seemed to drop. Simon inched towards his bedroom, trying to stay out of the eyes of those in the doorway.
“We are here to collect the woman you notified us about,” said one of the men in the doorway. His voice was made for German, sharp and metallic and completely proper.
“Let me see your identification,” Karl said.
“You are speaking to a superior officer, soldier,” the man said, “Stand down or face charges of insubordination.”
“I am within my rights to ask for identification. I don't recognise your officer stripes,” Karl said. Simon watched his hand slide surreptitiously towards his gun. “Now show me your cards or I will deny you entrance. The woman is under my protection for the moment.”
“We are under direct order from the Kaiser,” the man stated. “We need no identification to enter the premises. You could be hung for treason if you refuse us entrance.”
“I'll take my chances,” Karl said. He slammed the door shut in the man's face, ignoring the cry of outrage. “Go out through the window. Take my bike,” he said to Simon in English.
“I don't know who those men were, but someone has found out we have her here, and they want her,” Karl said. “They were not part of any regiment I am familiar with. I'm going to stay here and wait for my commander to come assist me. You need to get her out in case they break through the door.”
“I don't understand what's going on,” Simon said helplessly. Karl gripped his arm, trying to push him towards the bedroom. Simon resisted, putting both palms to Karl's chest. “Are they not your own army?”
“No. I don't' recognise their stripes. If they do have an order from the Kaiser, I won't be able to stop them.” They both jerked as something slammed against the laboratory door, making it rattle on its hinges. “You must go.”
“I can't ride your bike,” Simon hissed. “You know that.”
Something slammed against the door again. Karl shoved him harder, making him stumble into the bedroom. “Go, Simon!”
“Surely we can come to some arrangement that benefits everyone,” Simon said desperately. “What will happen if they come through the door?”
“If they are real, I will hang for treason,” Karl said grimly. His lips pressed into a firm line. “If they are conspirators, I will fight them and meet up with you to take Nimue to the consulate. Now go, Simon.”
“Nobody has to be hurt,” Simon persisted. “Just let me talk to them-”
“No, Simon, you didn't see the weapons they had,” Karl said sharply. Another bang on the door cracked the wood. Karl glanced over Simon's shoulder, and Simon felt himself grabbed from behind. Nimue's fingers dug into his arm and pulled him away from the laboratory. “I'll meet up with you.”
“Where will we go?” Simon asked, curling his fingers around Nimue's wrist as she tried to pull him towards the window in the room.
“Somewhere safe,” Karl suggested. The door to the lab broke open with a flurry of noise and yells, and Karl dragged the bedroom door shut.
Nimue was halfway out the window when Simon turned to her. He followed, shimmying as quickly as he could onto the German street. Nimue was still in her undergarments. She was going to attract attention of the unwarranted kind. She clapped her hands in front of his face. Startled, he forced his attention on her.
“Bike,” she said sharply. Simon shook his head, trying to focus. Karl's bike.
He led her into the back alley where the motor bike was parked. Swinging a leg over the saddle, he straddled the seat and stared at the controls on the front. He was an engineer, but he had never handled one of these before. The hydraulic gauges were much different than the ones on his motor car. He could very well cause the bike to explode if he over-powered one of the lines.
Nimue pushed at his chest, forcing him back further in the saddle. She hiked her long skirt up and swung a leg over, seating herself in front of him. She flung her hair over her shoulder and ran her hands over the gauges before knocking the kickstand up.
The motor bike roared, the sound deafening in the small alleyway, and Simon cried out when it jerked forward. He wrapped his arms around Nimue's waist, forgetting about propriety in deference to him falling off the tricky thing. Her hair blew in his face and tickled his nose as she drove the bike out of the alley and into the street. Simon heard shouting following them, but the bike's motor drowned out all noise and soon the voices faded away. He didn't risk looking back, for he feared he would lose his grip and fall.
Nimue navigated the stuttering German traffic like a fish through the river currents. She made the bike do things Simon had never even seen Karl do, cutting corners and slipping between carriages like a shadow. It wasn't long before Simon dug his face into her back, feeling nauseous from the slick maneuvering.
The bike slowed eventually, and Nimue stopped. Simon gathered the courage to lift his head and saw she had taken them outside the city to the docks, where all the fish-hands were staring at them.
“This is not safe,” Simon said, tightening his grip on Nimue's waist. “You have to take us somewhere else.”
Nimue shook her head, prying his fingers loose from around her waist. She slid from the bike and walked towards the ocean. Luckily, all the men's eyes followed her, and nobody noticed Simon attempting to follow her. The slow rumble of astonished German surrounded him as they moved, the fishermen in awe at the Oriental wandering through their docks in her undergarments.
One grabbed her wrist, a lascivious leer on his lips as he tried to drag her with him, thinking she was a brothel girl. Before Simon could reach them, the man was on the ground, blood pouring from his nose. Nimue's hands clenched into fists, a furious goddess as the ocean breeze grabbed at her hair and dress.
“Do not touch her,” Simon said when he reached them. The man writhed on the ground, moaning around the pain of a few dislodged teeth. “Any of you,” he continued in German. “We are just passing through.”
Nimue stepped over the man she had laid out and walked towards one of the derelict taverns along the docks. Simon trotted to catch up, and before he could stop her, she slid inside. He swallowed hard, pushing through the door after her. In the dim lighting of the tavern, he saw Nimue run for the woman behind the tap.
An answering cry to Nimue's feral shout greeted him, and the women embraced fiercely. The patrons of the tavern were staring. Simon picked his way towards Nimue.
“Simon,” Nimue said, gesturing to him. The tavern maid held tight to Nimue.
“You're caring for her,” she said in German. Simon nodded, trying not to stare at the maid's slanted eyes. “Give me one moment. I need to speak with the owner.”
The maid passed Nimue's hand to Simon's, and he gripped her firmly until the bar maid returned, wiping her hands in her apron. “Come, come with me.”
She led them up the stairs and into the home attached to the tavern. The noise of the drunkards faded, and the barmaid closed a door behind them, closing them into a small kitchen.
“I am Alyssia,” the barmaid said. “Thank you so much for bringing her to me.”
“She- uh- She took herself, really,” Simon said in faltering German. “There are men after us.”
“The Kaiser has a special task force,” Alyssia said. Simon stared at her fingers twisted with Nimue's. “It is of the utmost importance that you do not let them take her.”
Simon narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” Alyssia said firmly. “A friend who is going to offer you sanctuary until you can figure out what to do with her.”
“I don't understand,” Simon said. “Why are they after her?”
“She is valuable to them. We all are,” Alyssia said. “The information we carry would win them amazing victories over our people.”
“Who are you?” Simon asked again. Alyssia shook her head.
“We must find you a way out of the city. Into the country, where it's safer.” She moved to the cupboards and started pulling bread and meat onto the counters.
“I'm not going to leave the city. All my work is here,” Simon said. “If you don't explain what is going on, I'm taking her with me and we're leaving.”
“This is more important than your work,” Alyssia said.
“Excuse you, milady, but you do not even know what I do,” Simon said, sputtering indignation.
“What do you do, then?”
“I am researching the construction of underwater vessels, to prepare humanity for the next great adventure,” Simon said. “To explore the oceans and create a new breed of creature, one who dwells on land and water with ease.”
Alyssia went pale, glancing at Nimue. “You must abandon your work,” Alyssia said.
“Never. It's my life's goal to see humans live on the seas as easily as they live on land,” Simon said. Alyssia moved close to him and gripped his upper arms in a strong hold.
“Listen to me. You must abandon your work. There is more at stake here than your vessels. This could be the ending of an entire species if you continue,” she implored, giving him a slight shake. Her German was thick with emotion.
“A species? What are you going on about, woman?” Simon freed himself from her grasp, stepping back. “Speak plainly!”
“I can't tell you more, but you must proceed with care,” Alyssia said. She shook her head. “And we must keep her out of the hands of the Kaiser.”
“We only needed somewhere safe to stay until our friend meets with us,” Simon said. “We're not going anywhere until he finds us.”
“Your soldier?” Alyssia surmised. Simon narrowed his eyes at her.
“How did you know?”
“We all saw you outside last night, on the beach,” Alyssia said. “Fine. You will wait for him. I will dress her.”
Alyssia bustled Nimue into a room off the kitchen, and Simon stood alone in the darkness with the feeling that his world was falling apart at the seams.
A rapping at the door drew his attention, and he moved to open it. Karl was on the other side, disheveled but whole. “What happened?” Simon asked as Karl pushed into the room.
“Followed the talk of a naked woman riding a motor bike here. Lady Godiva wasn't in town so I figured it had to be you two,” Karl said. “Where is she?”
“Alyssia is helping her dress,” Simon said. “I meant with the soldiers. Are you injured?”
Karl held a hand to his side, inhaling shallowly with each breath. “Just bruised. I'll be all right. There were only four of them. None of them had identification cards on them. They must have been some sort of ghost arm of the Kaiser. I don't know why they're after her, but my unit never showed up.”
“Alyssia says we're in danger,” Simon said. “That we can't let the Kaiser have Nimue.”
Karl's eyes flashed dangerously in the dim candlelight. “Whatever the Kaiser wants with her, it's enough to send his grunts. I don't like it either. We have to get to my unit. My commander will know what to do.”
“Alyssia wants us to leave the city,” Simon said. “Go to the country, and hide.”
“No. We must get to the bottom of this. Who is she, and why does the Kaiser want her badly enough to send armed guards to destroy your work?” Karl asked. Simon felt like Nimue had punched him again.
“Come again?” he breathed. Karl blinked, realising what he said. His eyes softened.
“I'm sorry, Simon. The fight- They destroyed a great deal of the models,” Karl said gently. Simon took a step backwards, trying to absorb the news. “I'll tell my commander. We'll let you stay, I'm sure. The work visa-”
“That was everything,” Simon cut him off. “All my notes, all my research was in that lab. It's gone.”
“You still remember it,” Karl pointed out. He tapped Simon's forehead softly. “It's all up here, is it not?”
Simon knocked his hand down. “I've nothing left! There's no way to rebuild those models with just memory to support it!”
“You still have your life,” Karl reminded him sharply. “Do not forget that. Everything can be rebuilt as long as one has that.”
“What would you understand?” Simon asked hoarsely. “You can't perform the maths, you can barely write, you kill for money-”
Quicker than Simon could follow, Karl surged at him. Simon slammed back against a wall, Karl's weight holding him in place. His hands fisted tight in the front of Simon's shirt.
“Take care with your words, doctor,” Karl said in a low voice. “You know not of what you speak, do not presume you understand me.”
He gave Simon a firm shove which drove the air from his lungs and then released him just as Alyssia led Nimue from the room. Nimue smiled when she saw Karl, obviously pleased to see him. Simon rubbed his chest, catching his breath back.
“You must be Karl. It is important you leave the city at once,” Alyssia said without a proper introduction.
“I think the best course of action would be to find my unit and seek assistance from my superior officer,” Karl said. “He will be able to give us an idea of what is going on.”
“No. You must keep her away from any of the government,” Alyssia said. “Why do you think a special team was dispatched to your building? She is no ordinary person.”
“And you know her?” Karl asked. “Who is she?”
“She is important. Just as I am important,” Alyssia said. “And you will protect her. The survival of her people depends on it.”
Karl hummed placatingly, accepting the package of food Alyssia handed him. He slung it over his shoulder and looked to Simon and Nimue. “Shall we go then?”
Simon, confused by his sudden acquiescence, led the way out of the tavern and onto the crowded docks. Karl bumped against him, nudging him towards the bike they had parked. “We're going to my unit. Come along.”
“Wait. She said get out of the city,” Simon said.
“I heard what she said,” Karl said. “I don't trust her.”
“She dressed Nimue,” Simon said, the first thing that came to his mind. He could barely keep up with what was going on.
“Simon, keep up,” Karl said. “First, the Kaiser sends a secret team of armed men to retrieve her, and now someone of her own race is telling her to run from the city? There is something at work here bigger than you and I, and my commander needs to know about it. We're going to find my nit and seek help.” He paused by his bike's side. “How did you get here on this, by the way?”
“Um. Nimue drove,” Simon said. Karl laughed, blue eyes crinkling in delight.
“That must have been a sight. Nimue in her undies driving a motor bike through the streets,” Karl said. He mounted the bike and eyed Nimue. “That... will not do.”
Her giant petticoats were much too large to fit comfortably on the saddle of the bike. She splayed her gloved hands over them and grasped a bit of fabric in a fist. She started to tear.
“Wait,” Karl said. He reached for his belt and unsheathed the knife there. He tossed it to her and she caught it with ease, taking it to the glorious petticoats with unholy fervor.
“You can't!” Simon cried in dismay. “We just dressed you so nicely!”
“She won't fit on the bike,” Karl said evenly. “She hates the dress anyway. Look at her.”
Nimue kicked the remnants of the dress to the ground, spinning the knife before handing it back to Karl and mounting the bike behind him. Free of her dress, she was left in a lace bodice and stockings, the gloves on her arms standing out starkly against her dark skin.
“I'm fairly sure I can ride three,” Karl said. “Come on. Unless you want to smell like fish for the rest of your life.”
Simon gritted his teeth and gingerly climbed aboard the motor bike. He had to press himself uncomfortably close to Nimue to stay on, and hoped that she would forgive his lack of chivalry in this circumstance. Karl drove much more cautiously than Nimue had, with three being cumbersome and unbalanced.
They reached the army headquarters, a large palace at the edge of the city. Karl brought the bike to a stop in front of the gates and stepped off. “Sir, your overcoat,” he said to the guard outside the gates.
The ranking officer, Karl was obeyed. The guard shrugged out of his long overcoat and Karl turned to drape it over Nimue's shoulders. She positively grinned at how large it was, feeding her hands through the sleeves excitedly. Karl smiled, and pushed through the gates into the courtyard. Training regimes went on around them as they walked across the yard towards the building.
Simon felt his hair stand on end as they walked. He caught whispers of slurs directed at him, and wasn't sure if the German soldiers stared at him or at Nimue. Their attention was probably evenly split. An Englishman in the heart of the German training grounds was an unwelcome occurrence.
Karl ignored the stares and whispers, holding the door for them to entire the building. The hallway was cool against the hot summer heat, and Simon breathed just slightly easier. Karl separated from them to find out where his unit was, and when he returned he couldn't prevent the boyish grin tugging at his lips.
“My commander is aboard an airship. We're to meet them when they stop for fuel in an hour at the north fields,” Karl said.
“Airship?” Simon unconsciously glanced upwards. “Is it truly necessary?”
“Yes,” Karl said. “Let's go. We still have to get there, after all. We're getting an escort.”
They were driven in a cab sort of thing, motorised of course, and were left to wait with the fueling station attendant who kept his telescope on the sky, waiting for the balloon to appear on the horizon.
Karl spent the wait teaching Nimue more German.
“What about English?” Simon protested. “That doesn't seem fair at all.”
“You named her an English name. It's only fair she learn to speak German,” Karl pointed out. “We did find her together, after all.”
“It's only fair,” Nimue parroted in German. Simon scowled but didn't really have an argument to provide against it. He listened to the sounds of their back and forth wash over him.
He was shaken awake by Nimue shortly after, and he opened his eyes to a massive balloon ship, coloured like the sky on a stormy English afternoon. It was the largest airship Simon had ever seen up close, and his jaw felt like it was dislocating through sheer force of awe.
Karl held the rope ladder for them and they carefully climbed aboard. Simon reached the last rung and he was grabbed by both arms and hauled onto the deck by two German soldiers. Karl was lifted up beside him, and they all saluted each other.
“I need to see Kommander Klaus,” Karl said after pleasantries were exchanged. The soldiers nodded and gestured them to follow. Nimue kept the coat cinched tight around her as they moved, the air in the ship cooler than on the ground from all the time spent in the upper air.
They were led to a small office in the living quarters and left inside the room, with an older military man in full dress. Karl saluted, a gesture the man returned, and nodded to Simon and Nimue.
“This is the scientist and engineer Simon that I was assigned to. This woman washed up on the shore of the Channel yesterday while we were gathering samples,” Karl said in strict, unyielding German. “I requested assistance from you, but the operator on the switchboard did not respond appropriately. The Kaiser sent a group of men trained in retrieval for this one woman. I need to know what's going on. Why is she so important to the Kaiser?”
“Calm down, son,” the man said, standing to his full height. The room seemed to dwarf around him. He had one mechanical eye, attached to the brim of his hat, and it swept over Simon and Nimue before he started to speak. “We never received your request. You realise what you have risked bringing him aboard?”
Simon froze. “Surely you can't be serious. I'm no threat to you. I was researching underwater vessels under a grant through your program!”
“Yes, a grant that came with strict rules and stipulations,” the man, Commander Klaus, said. “You have technically been exposed to the secrets and inner workings of our airfleet. You are a citizen of a rival nation. Do you realise the security breach you have been exposed to? We can put you in jail for the rest of your life, spy.”
Cold washed down Simon's spine. He stepped backwards into the wall, hitting a picture frame situated there. “You can't possibly- This isn't fair. I've been with Karl the entire time-”
Klaus pressed a button on his desk.
“Sir! With all due respect, Simon is not the issue at hand. This woman washed up on shore with no identification, no memory of who she is, no speech-” Karl tripped over himself in his effort to get the words out quickly. “She is our concern here, not some pacifist engineer who wouldn't raise a hand to save himself!”
“My authority on this ship is final, soldier,” Klaus said. Two guards appeared in the doorway. “Take this British idiot to the brig until further notice.”
Simon was grabbed on either side, fingers clenching painfully into his arms. “No! You can't. Please, listen to me!”
“Please!” Nimue echoed, reaching for Simon, trying to pry the guard's fingers off him. “Please, no!”
“Sir, this is ridiculous,” Karl argued. “The boy has done nothing wrong-”
The guards tugged Simon from the room, shoving Nimue back from them. Simon knew that even if he pulled he wouldn't have a hope of breaking free. It was all he could do to stay on his feet as they frog-marched him through the ship.
The brig was at the bottom of the ship, closest to the thin barrier of reed, metal, and rope that kept the ship's occupants from falling miles to their deaths. Simon was pushed unceremoniously into a cell, and the door clanged shut behind him. He could hear the sound of wind whistling over his rasping gasps for breath. So close. He was so close to the precipice. One wrong move and his foot would go right through the material of the ship. He knew the make-up of these vessels.
He staggered against the wall, pressing himself as far as he could into the corner by the door, away from the outer walls where the cool chill was seeping in from the atmosphere. He swallowed hard, trying to get more air through a tight throat. Closing his eyes helped a bit. He couldn't see the tightly drawn panels across the floor, but it made the wind louder in his ears.
“Please. Please,” he whispered, almost to himself. “Please get me out of here. Someone help...”
The wind was sucking the air out of the room. Simon struggled for each inhale, and he sank to the ground as his vision danced. He couldn't breathe- couldn't-
“Simon. Look at me, boy, I know you can hear me.”
Strong fingers grasped his chin and suddenly Karl's face filled his vision. He could barely hear the German over his wheezing.
“You've got sky sickness. Look at me. I need you to breathe with me. You're all right. I won't let you come to harm, now breathe with me,” Karl said. He had one of Simon's hands pressed to his chest, holding it there in a bruising grip. Simon could feel the warm intake of breath, and tried to follow it, twisting his fingers in Karl's shirt. “Breathe with me, Simon. Focus on me. That's it.”
Simon felt his chest release at the first inhale. He closed his eyes and tried to match his breathing with Karl's. “H-How did y-you know what to d-do?” Simon asked, forcing his words through unwilling lips.
“Humans aren't meant to take to the sky like dragons,” Karl said. “You're not the first person to fall to sky sickness. You surely won't be the last, either. Catch your breath.”
“I can't be here. You can't leave me here,” Simon said, tightening his grip in Karl's shirt.
“I wouldn't leave anyone shaking as badly as you. It's inhuman,” Karl said softly. Simon only then realised how hard he was trembling. He let out a broken sort of noise, one he hadn't known he was capable of making, and Karl dragged him in roughly. He wrapped his arms around Simon, crushing him tight against his chest. “Hush now. Good thing I came after you.”
“What about Nimue?” Simon managed to ask.
“She's here. She won't come into the room because of the wind, but she's just in the hall. I can see her.” Karl rubbed his hand over Simon's back, soothing out the last of the tremors. “Come on. Stand up.”
“No, no. No,” Simon protested when Karl yanked on his arms. His legs felt like jelly. He wouldn't be able to stand on them, he could barely feel them. “I can't- Don't leave me-”
“I'm not going to leave you, you giant pillock, but you have to meet me halfway. I need you to stand. You're being moved to protective custody. Mine, specifically,” Karl said. “But I need you to stand.”
Simon gritted his teeth and pushed hard, forcing his legs to move and obey him. He leaned heavily on Karl, but was on his feet. Small victory.
“You are the biggest baby I have ever seen,” Karl said as he maneuvered them out of the cell and into the hall. Nimue indeed stood in the hall, large overcoat still wrapped around her frame. She anxiously grabbed at Simon's arm, digging her fingers into his flesh. He tried to smile at her, so she wouldn't worry, but he knew it was weak and not at all convincing.
“I'm sorry. That's... never happened to me before,” Simon said.
“Have you ever been in an airship before?” Karl asked. Simon shook his head. “Well that's it, then. We never know how one is going to react until experience. That's why they practice throwing us off airships during basic training. That gets you over the sickness very quickly.”
Karl and Nimue managed to get Simon to Karl's temporary quarters on the airship. Nimue perched on the bed while Karl silently cleaned Simon and gave him a clean, crisp shirt to wear. Simon tried to hide his face from Karl during the entire ordeal, embarrassment hot in his cheeks.
“It's all right, Simon,” Karl said softly. “It's a natural reaction. Humans aren't meant to be sky-borne.”
“I'm sorry,” Simon said miserably. “I'm such a horror.”
Karl cuffed his ear gently. “I said it's all right, so believe in me. Honestly. If I had a little brother, I'm sure he'd be exactly like you.”
“Throwing up on your shoes?” Simon asked. Nimue grabbed for his hand and gripped it between both of hers. Karl laughed.
“Easily embarrassed, naive, and hopelessly enamoured with human's better nature,” Karl said. He tossed Simon's dirtied shirt into a bin. “You look snappy in my shirt.”
Simon smiled finally, heat seeping from his cheeks. “Thank you.”
“The rules of the arrangement are that you need to stay with me at all time. You are not to leave this room without an escort. You are not to accompany me to any sensitive areas of the ship, where you might learn of its inner workings. You are to have no outside communication during your stay on this vessel.”
“What about Nimue?” Simon cut in. “What did he say about her?”
“Nothing,” Karl said, casting a glance at her. “Absolutely nothing. I don't know what's going in. I don't think I like it. He's hiding something. He's letting her walk around with me, but no formal charges have been levered against her.”
“We have to find out who she really is,” Simon said. “If I can just send a letter to the-”
“No, Simon. It was enough to convince him that I would keep an eye on you. You're in big trouble, and I'm doing my best to protect you, but you have to obey the rules,” Karl said. He sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. The hum of the airship cutting through the air currents resonated around them. “He's got it in his head that you're some sort of spy. I'm going to have to talk to him about it. You've obviously never been on an airship before, nor have you had formal training. You can fake sky sickness, but you can't fake gagging.”
Simon's stomach turned at the memory of its upset. He must have gone pale again, because Nimue tightened her grip and leaned closer, concern on her face.
“All right?” she asked in German.
“I'm fine, thanks,” he replied, also in German. She smiled slightly.
A roar rumbled through the noise of the ship's engines. Nimue went painfully stiff, jerking to her feet with her eyes on the window. Simon stared at her in confusion as she dropped his hand and backed away from the window with quick, jerky movements.
“Dragon,” Karl said. He crept onto the bed and pressed against the wall, eyes on the porthole in the side of the ship. Simon slid from the bed to the floor, trying to stay out of sight.
A siren wailed over the speakers. Nimue clamped her hands over her ears and cowered away from the noise. Simon crawled to her and covered her head as the captain's voice echoed over the communications system. Gruff orders issued in German for all hands to their battle stations. They had sighted a dragon.
“I see it,” Karl said from his perch. “Magnificent.”
Simon couldn't help it. His curiosity got the better of him. He crawled up the cot and shouldered against Karl to see. The dragon arched out of a cloud just at that moment, providing Simon with a full view of it's glorious, white body. Silver scales gleamed in filtered sunlight.
“The head must be as big as me,” Simon said reverently. Karl nodded his agreement.
The beast was at least as long as the airship from nose to tail. Four great legs ended in claws for walking and grasping, and the powerful wings stretched out, beating powerfully against the air currents to keep it aloft. Light blue streaks marked the underbelly, and when it turned towards the ship, Simon saw it's eyes were black.
“It sees us,” Simon said. He scrambled from the cot and onto the floor once more.
“We'll be all right,” Karl said. “My men know how to fight a dragon.”
“We're going to fall,” Simon said, feeling his breath quicken again.
“We're not going to fall.” Karl slid from the cot and grabbed Simon's shoulders. “We're going to be safe. Remember what I promised you? I won't let harm come to you. Trust me.”
Simon closed his eyes and willed his breathing to quiet. He managed to get himself under control this time, to his great pleasure, just in time for the canons to start flying across the clouds. Karl left him on the floor to watch, and his face pinched in the light of the sun.
“Odd. They're using grappling hooks instead of spears.” He squinted, trying to get a better idea of what was happening. “Are they trying to capture it?”
Nimue cried out at a particularly loud bang of a cannon near them. Simon covered her head with his arms again, tucking her against his chest.
“Why would they capture something like that?” he asked. “What possible use could they have for a dragon!? There aren't many left!”
“That might be why,” Karl said, raising his voice over the sound of cannons firing. “They may be trying to save it from poachers.”
“Save it by killing it?” Simon asked. “Typical. The military knows nothing of freedom and helping. You can only destroy, even the things you want to protect-”
“You know nothing, boy, so don't presume to lecture me on my profession or the men I work with,” Karl snapped. “There's nothing I can do about it. It's seen us and is trying to make an attack.”
“Because you frightened it!” Simon shot back. “It's terrified of you and the noise this ship is making. Who wouldn't be?”
“Be quiet,” Karl ordered. “Until the alarm is off, you are to say nothing.”
Simon tucked his head against Nimue's, riding out the rocking of the airship as it fired upon the creature again and again. Nimue cried out, shaking against Simon, and the alarm fell quiet. Simon lifted his head to see Karl uncurling himself from the wall.
“It's done. They've killed it,” he said, his voice abnormally rough. “It fell.”
“I hope you're pleased with your company's work,” Simon said, his own voice cracking.
“I told you to keep your opinions to yourself,” Karl said, his voice pitching low and dangerous.
“There are too few dragons left in the world for me to do that,” Simon countered. “Your people may have shot down the last air dragon in existence.”
“If you leave this room, you will be obtained and thrown in the brig again,” Karl said, stalking past where Simon and Nimue curled to the door. He slammed it shut behind him, and Simon heard the lock thrown.
“Violent bastard,” Simon muttered. He got to his feet and tugged Nimue up with him. She shook her head, resisting his attempts to move her to the more comfortable cot. She didn't want to be near the window, and with good reason. Dragons were rarely seen nowadays, and women had less chance to see them at all. Military men and men at sea most often saw them, returning home to frighten women and children with their horrific stories. “It's all right, Nimue,” he said in German, “You're safe.”
“No, no,” Nimue said, shaking her head. She pushed against Simon's hands. “Not all right.”
“What's wrong?” Simon asked, running his fingers along her cheek comfortingly. “Are you hurt?”
“I hurt,” she said. She pursed her lips in frustration.
“Where do you hurt?” Simon asked. She touched her chest, over her heart, and her eyes kept shifting to the window.
“Bad,” she managed. “You do bad things.”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Simon said. “I was against it. I wanted to protect it!”
“Killer!” Nimue cried, shoving him hard. He stumbled onto the cot, mouth hanging open.
“I've never- I'm not,” he protested. “I would never kill anything. I'm a pacifist. That means I do no harm. I wanted to help it.”
“You all kill,” Nimue said, backing against the door. They were locked in, she had nowhere to go, but she wouldn't let Simon get any closer. “All kill!”
“That's not true,” Simon said. “I have never killed anything in my life-”
“No!” Nimue shouted at him, her voice filling the small cabin.
Simon sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. He willed himself to calm down, to ignore her accusations. She didn't know them, she didn't understand their culture. He could feel the tension in the room deplete as he remained silent, and finally he looked up at her. She was still pale, but the fury had drained.
“Come,” Simon said in German. “We'll continue your lessons.”
Nimue approached, but still refused to sit on the cot. She perched on the floor, the coat billowing out around her, and listened intently to him as he taught her German.
Karl opened the door sometime later, his face lighting up when Nimue greeting him with a perfect, “Hello, Karl.”
“Hello, Nimue,” Karl said. “I see your lessons are going well.”
“She's brilliant,” Simon admitted. “I've never seen anything like it. She's just soaking up the language with almost no prompting.”
“Imagine that. A smart woman,” Karl said, sarcasm thick in his voice. “What will they think of next? Traveling to the moon?”
“All I'm saying is that I've never seen anyone quite as smart as her,” Simon said, bristling. “If she were a man, she might be more capable than me in maths and sciences.”
“Heaven forbid,” Karl said. He placed a bag on the cot. “Dinner for you and Nimue.”
Simon realised how utterly famished he was, and ripped the bag open. Nimue assisted him in demolishing the food while Karl watched in amusement. “Can she tell us who she is yet?” Karl asked.
“I haven't asked. She was rather angry with me after your company shot the dragon down,” Simon said. “She keeps saying we're killers. I can't get through to her that not everyone murders.”
Nimue finished eating and curled upon the floor under the coat. Her long black hair splayed out around her, a soft nest where she lay her head.
“Any word on who she is?” Simon asked. Karl shook his head.
“Commander hasn't even mentioned anything about looking.” His eyes flicked to the door, and Simon followed his gaze. It was shut tight. “I think he's keeping something from us.”
“Why?” Simon dropped his voice to match Karl's. “What possible use could he have to withholding information?”
“If he knows who she is,” Karl said. Simon had to lean closer to hear him, putting him squarely in Karl's personal space. “If she's important.”
“I don't understand. Why wouldn't he tell us?” Simon asked.
“To keep our guard down. If she is important, and she stays here, then he can do whatever he wants with her.” Karl huffed in frustration, his face pinched in the rising moonlight. “I don't know. I feel like I don't have a grasp on what's happening. There are too many unknowns. We need to find out who she is. If we can do that, at least we'll have a place to start.”
Simon wasn't sure when he fell asleep, but he woke to a massive cramp in his neck from leaning against Karl all night. Karl was still asleep, head tipped back against the wall. When Simon moved, karl started to slide sideways. Simon grabbed his arm and eased him down against the pillow so he didn't smash his head.
Satisfied, Simon stood from the cot and stretched. He ached in places he didn't even know he had, and caught Nimue staring at him from the floor. He frowned. “You chose the floor. Don't look at me like that.”
“Wasn't,” she said, turning her nose up at him. Simon's jaw dropped. Perhaps it was a bad idea to let Karl teach her... She seemed to have picked up his attitude with his language.
“Nimue, can you tell me more about yourself?” Simon asked, keeping his voice low so as not to wake Karl. He sat on the floor across from her, and she pulled her knees to her chest. “Where did you come from? Why were you in the Channel that day?”
She shook her head and tapped her temple. “Do not know,” she said succinctly. “No words. I... remember- how you say it-” She made a motion with her hands, as if her hand was a bird cutting through the air.
“Fly?” Simon asked. “You came from an airship? Like what we're in now?”
“No, no,” she said, groaning. “Water. In water.” She made the motion again. Simon frowned.
“Yes! Swam,” Nimue said. “I was swam and... I remember good language.” She put her fingers to her lips as if drawing sound from her mouth. “What is word?”
“Speech? You remember talking?” Simon floundered. She shook her head and made the motion again, this time humming low in her throat.
“Singing,” Karl said from the cot. Simon glanced at him. He was awake, still lying, and watching them sharply. “You remember singing.”
“Yes, that is word,” Nimue said. “Swam and singing.”
“Were you on a merchant ship?” Simon asked. Sometimes traders from the Far East took their daughters on their voyages to seek husbands in the West. “A vessel that belongs on the water.”
Nimue shook her head. “Swam.”
“You... You can't have swam from the East,” Simon said, stumbling over his words. “That's hundreds of thousands of miles. It takes the fastest ship months.”
“Swam,” Nimue persisted.
“She doesn't understand,” Karl said wearily, his voice muffled by the bedclothes. Nimue hissed in frustration.
“I understand!” she shot at them. “Swam. In water.” She made the motion again with her hands.
“I'll ask the commander for a list of all merchant ships that docked at German ports in the last week,” Karl said. “Maybe one of them reported a missing person.” He pushed himself up and yawned. Simon yawned in sympathy.
Karl stood and began stripping out of his wrinkled uniform. Simon avoided looking at him, trying to give him a modicum of privacy, but Nimue had no such compulsion. She openly stared at Karl as inch by inch, more skin was revealed until Karl was in his undergarments.
“Nimue. That's improper. Shut your eyes,” Simon hissed.
“It's fine,” Karl said. “I'm sure she's seen it before.”
Simon went to cover her eyes, but Nimue resisted, tugging his hand and pinching it between her teeth. Simon yelped and Karl laughed uproariously, holding his shirt in both hands. “I'm trying to protect you!” Simon cried.
“I don't think she needs protecting, to be honest,” Karl said. “She seems to have a good set of teeth on her already.”
Simon was transfixed by Karl's impressive build, now that he accidentally set eyes on him. He could see what Nimue had been staring at. His flat stomach and abdomen were toned from hours of training regimens, and his arms were strong and firm. The muscles in his back shifted as he tugged trousers on, and Simon couldn't tear his eyes away from the way Karl's shoulder blades moved.
“Take a photo,” Karl said, throwing a shirt over his shoulders. Simon blinked, trying to work moisture back into his mouth.
“I wasn't- I mean-”
“It's all right,” Karl said. “We're in close quarters. I get it. Relax. You are so uptight.” He set a cap over his close cropped blonde hair. “I'll be back shortly. Try not to get into any trouble while I'm gone.”
“Yes,” Nimue said cheerfully. Karl chuckled and closed the door behind him, sliding the lock into place. Nimue leered at him.
“Shut up,” Simon said. Nimue rolled her eyes and moved to sit in front of him.
“Teach more,” she prodded. “More words.”
Simon complied, and continued their language lesson from the day before.
He was trying to explain fire to her when a knock came on the door. Simon paused, unsure why Karl would have to knock on his own door. “Yes?” he called.
Nimue slapped a hand over his mouth but it was too late. Whoever was in the hall had heard him. The bolt slid free and the door opened. Karl was not outside. Instead, it was a group of soldiers in plainclothes, obviously in their down time on the ship.
“Here they are, boys. The nancy British boy and the brothel girl,” the man at the front of the group said. His German was thick and slurred, and Simon could smell the mead on his person.
He stood and pushed Nimue behind him. “We are obeying orders,” he said. “You cannot do anything without some sort of charge.”
“I charge you with being too pretty to be a spy,” the man said, lurching into the room. Simon stepped back, crowding Nimue against the wall as the group, four of them, fell into the room.
“I am not a spy,” Simon said. “I am a researcher. I was working under a grant for your organisation on underwater boats.”
“A ponce like you working for the military?” He stepped in close to Simon, clearly invading his personal space. Simon cringed away, feeling Nimue at his back. She squirmed, but he held her in place. “I wouldn't hear of it. You were brought on board for a much different reason, I think.”
He dragged his fingers along Simon's cheek and Simon cringed away, knocking heads with Nimue in his haste to get away. The larger German soldier did not appreciate the motion, and fisted his hand in Simon's hair. Simon cried out, and was forced away from Nimue. The man backhanded Simon so hard stars exploded across his vision, and he felt something warm slip over his lip.
Nimue cried out, and Simon twisted to see her held on either side by a soldier. “Look, boys, she's already unwrapped for you.”
The overcoat had fallen away, revealing her insubstantial bodice.
“Stop it,” Simon said around his throbbing jaw. “You must stop. We must be able to come to some sort of arrangement-”
The man backhanded Simon again, and Simon had to blink fiercely to stop the room spinning. He gasped, dizzy.
“You are not in the place to be making demands, nancy boy,” the man said. “You and your people should just stay on that island you came from. You make us weak, having you in our lands.”
He jerked hard on Simon's hair, enough that Simon overbalanced and fell on his side. He was completely unprepared for the boot connected hard with his ribs, the air in his lungs forcibly removed. He gasped, choking, and curled around the hurt. He heard a scuffle above him, and he cowered, trying to cover his head. Something warm fell over him, and he squinted up to see Nimue crouched over him on all fours, glaring at the men.
“You leave,” she said, her beautiful voice curling dangerously around harsh German syllables. “Now.”
“We've only just started to have our fun,” the man said with a sneer. “Why don't you leave your wimp boy there and come with us. We'll show you a good time.”
“You leave now,” Nimue repeated, a hint of a growl in her voice. She shifted over Simon, and he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
“No, Nimue, wait-” he barely managed before she spun.
She drove her foot into the nearest man's stomach, sending him tumbling into the hall. Before the others had a chance to react, she had smashed her elbow into a second's face and whirled to face the remaining two. They came at her together, but it did not seem to matter. She deftly stepped out of their advance and used one to take the other down, just as Karl appeared in the doorway.
“Good God, what happened?” He entered the room, stepping over one of his fallen comrades to get to Simon. He hauled Simon to his feet and gripped his chin. “I told you to stay put.”
“They came in,” Simon said around a thick tongue. “We were here and they came into the room.”
“We obey,” Nimue said. “Bad men start fight.”
She flicked her hair over her shoulder and glared at one of the men trying to get up. He scurried out of the room on his hands and knees.
“Get out of here,” Karl snapped at the remaining two, who were falling over themselves in their haste to leave. “Commander will be hearing about this! I've got your name and rank!”
He sat Simon down on the bed.
“My God. Look at you,” Karl muttered, taking Simon's head in hand and turning towards the light. When he took his fingers away, they were streaked with red. Simon swallowed hard, closing his eyes. His entire face felt hot, as if he had caught fever.
“Simon not fight,” Nimue said. “I do.”
“A strategy of peace is admirable, but if you're going to get the crap beat out of you I think there is a chance to rethink your planning,” Karl said, sitting back on his heels. “You really don't fight, do you?”
“Fighting solves nothing,” Simon said hoarsely. “Only brings more suffering to those involved.”
“I quite think it solved this situation very nicely, don't you, Nimue?” Karl asked, wiping at Simon's face with his sleeve, sopping up the blood.
“Very,” Nimue said, a bit too pleased.
“You did good, Nimue,” Karl said. “Well done.”
She beamed, sitting on the cot next to Simon. She watched Karl work in silence, her eyes intent on Simon the entire time.
“I asked around, about merchant ships,” Karl said to break the silence. “There were no Eastern trade ships in port or near Germany this week. She couldn't be from one of them. She must have fallen from an airship.”
“Swam!” Nimue insisted heatedly.
“It's possible the water could have broken her fall and she could have survived without a parachute,” Karl went on, ignoring her. “And if she got rid of her clothes to stay afloat... That explains her state of undress when we found her.”
“Swam,” Nimue repeated. Karl nodded.
“Yes, you swam after your fall,” he said. Nimue shook her head with a frustrated noise. She crossed her arms over her chest and scowled at them. “Hold this here, Simon.”
Simon took Karl's kerchief and pressed it to his still oozing lip. “We're back to square one, then.”
“Right. There aren't any records of any airships in the area, though, either. If she was on a boat or an airship, it wasn't registered, which means it was most likely illegal. Smugglers or slavers.”
“So we may have rescued her,” Simon said. Karl shrugged.
“Your guess is as good as mine at this point. I'm out of leads to follow.” He leaned against the cot and waved at the pillow. “Why don't you lie down for a bit. I'll keep watch.”
“I don't know if I could sleep right now,” Simon said. Though even as he said it, a wave of exhaustion washed over him so fiercely his eyes drooped.
“Lie down. Just trust me.” Karl chuckled and patted Simon's leg. Simon reclined, the cool pillow comforting against his inflamed cheek.
“Teach more words,” Nimue demanded of Karl. Karl laughed and did just that.
“Simon. Simon. There is trouble. Wake.”
Nimue's hand on his shoulder jarred him awake, and he groaned. The pain in his head had exploded, and he felt like he had somehow survived being run over by a carriage.
Simon batted her hand away and sat up rubbing carefully at his eyes. His cheek was definitely swollen, and split across the bone. He winced, and Nimue's fingers clenched around his arm dragged his attention to her.
“What, Nimue?” Simon asked peevishly.
“Trouble. Karl left. A fight. Big fight.” She flicked her eyes to the door, where Simon could hear the sounds of gunfire and shouting.
He jerked to his feet and pressed an ear to the door. He heard what sounded like Slavic through the thin wood of the door.
“Pirates,” he whispered incredulously. As if this little adventure could get any worse. Air pirates.
He pushed away from the door and threw himself at the window. Sure enough, a derelict airship was grappled to the German military vessel, planks and rope creating a pathway for the pirates to board the ship.
“Where did Karl go?” Simon asked Nimue. She shook her head, clutching the overcoat around her. Simon inhaled sharply. They couldn't stay here. When the pirates were done they'd raze the ship. They had to get to an escape boat.
“Come on,” Simon said, swallowed hard and gripped the doorknob. He twisted and cautiously opened the door. Nimue placed herself at his shoulder, trying to see around him into the hall.
Smoke poured down the hall already, from where someone had burst a hydraulic pipe or something near the front of the ship. Simon stepped into the hall slowly, eyes wide open for motion in either direction. He wasn't sure where he should go, but the escape boats had to be somewhere near the living quarters or the bridge. He'd have to take his chances going down.
Gripping Nimue's hand so that he didn't lose her in the dark, he moved quickly down the corridor towards the far end of the ship, away from the bridge and control centre. The pirates were most likely there, getting whatever they came for. Parts, money, or pardons. It could be anything, really.
“Karl,” Nimue reminded him.
“He'll meet up with us,” Simon hoped. Karl was most likely helping fend off the pirates somewhere near the bridge. Nimue tugged on his hand, discontent. “He'll find us, he will. We have to get to safety.”
A shot rang out perilously close to them, and Simon quickened his pace. He could hear wind rushing the further down the hall he went, and only Nimue's grip on his hand stopped him from stepping off the edge of the corridor into open air.
“Good God,” Simon breathed.
The entire section of the ship had been destroyed. The corridor dangled uselessly over a sheer drop. Simon scrambled for purchase, worried that a stiff breeze would send him tumbling, and Nimue's grip surrounded him, holding him to solid ground.
“Not that way,” Nimue said helpfully.
“Thanks,” Simon said. Another shot rang out, and metal pinged near them. The fighting was getting closer. He eyed the distance to the safe part of the corridor. He could make that jump. He could. “Can you make it?”
Nimue stared at the gap and nodded grimly. They both backed up, and Nimue released Simon's arm. He squared his shoulders. Another shot rang out, much closer. Footsteps followed it, and shouting. Too close. They were too close.
He ran, pushing off the lip and into open air. His arms went up instinctively, trying to help push him against the air, to get higher, move further.
He made it, with a few inches to spare, and he came down hard on the other side, his legs sliding out from under him. He crumpled into a graceless pile on the cold metal, and choked out a relieved breath before pushing himself to his knees.
“Come on,” he said to Nimue. She glanced behind her once before breaking into a run for the gap. When she jumped, Simon knew instantly she wasn't going to make it.
The giant coat swept out behind her like a dragnet, resisting her movement forwards. She pedaled in the air, as if trying to walk through it, and slammed into the deck with enough force that Simon's teeth hurt in sympathy. He dove for her, on his stomach, and gripped both her wrists. Her legs dangled, kicking, trying to find purchase against nothing but air.
She cried out, digging her nails into his skin.
“Hang on, I've got you,” Simon said fiercely. “I won't let go.”
He was sliding. There was nothing to grab onto, and he was sliding, dragged by her weight towards the breach. His arm felt like it was being pulled from its socket. He couldn't let go. He absolutely couldn't let go.
A billowing bit of cord slapped him in the face and he scrambled for it, wrapping it around his other wrist for leverage. It halted their slide, briefly, until the pulley it was dangling from snapped free and sent them hurtling into open air.
Simon's wrist, tangled in the thick rope, held them, but not without a horrific tearing of his shoulder and wrist. Nimue echoed his pained cry.
“Let go! Simon!” she called, twisting his his grip.
“No,” Simon said through gritted teeth. “I won't let you go. You're going to have to climb up. Quickly, now.”
“You are hurt,” Nimue said, shouting over the wind whipping them.
He couldn't really feel it anymore, actually. After the immediate, sharp agony, the pain had faded to a numb throb that pervaded his entire body. “Hurry, Nimue. You're slipping.”
Nimue heaved herself up, digging her nails into Simon's skin until she wrapped her arms around his waist and clung to him. The rope dug into his flesh, tearing and shredding until his arm dripped with blood. “Oh God,” Simon cried. The agony in his arm was getting worse. He couldn't feel his fingers, but he could feel the rope biting into flesh.
That sounded like Karl. When did Nimue start sounding like Karl?
The buzzing in his ears grew louder, and louder, and louder, and Simon realised that it wasn't in his head. A hoverbike flitted towards them, its lights piercing through the smoke billowing from the wounded ship. “Karl,” Simon said around the blood in his mouth.
“Karl!” Nimue shrieked. “Please!”
“It's all right!” Karl guided the bike under them and stood carefully, his arms up. “It's okay. I've got you. Come to me, Nimue. You can let go.”
Nimue slowly slid down Simon's body and into Karl's waiting arms. She grabbed the controls of the bike and lifted it along the airstream. Karl slid an arm around Simon's waist and dragged him close.
“My arm-” Simon said.
“I see it. I see it,” Karl cut him off, unsheathing the knife at his side. He sawed through the rough cable and Simon dropped against him. “Hey. Simon. Stay with me, boy.”
“Can't...” Simon felt heavy. Felt like the entire world was crushing on his chest, trying to stop his breath. He couldn't move anything, and he couldn't understand why he was so cold all of a sudden. He tucked his face against Karl's chest and closed his eyes.