Edward Lane’s Argosy Chapter Seven: The Suddenly Appearing Thief

Edward considered just walking up to the front gate of the yard and sending his calling card to Gideon via the carbine-carrying Red Indian guards, but he dismissed the thought almost immediately.  Such a re-introduction to his friend after so long an absence would seem so . . . mundane, and worse, unstylish.  Edward had always been a bit intimidated by his chum’s affluence and social position, and even more so by his indifference and disdain for it.  Gideon’s indefatigable self-confidence and boldness was infectious and alluring, but it could also be overwhelming.  Edward could not match it in volume, so he had always sought to complement it with his own, more subtle accomplishments.  A common handshake at the gate just would not do for the occasion of their reunion.

Gideon’s yard was a large one, on the outskirts of the sprawling Aeroport Paris, as remote as it could be from the center of the busy port’s activity and yet still be attached.  It took a train and a carriage ride to arrive there from his Spartan accomodations, and when he did arrive the mean dirt track that linked it was already soaked through from the rain, leaving a long, desolate stretch of Parisian mud to trod through.  Gideon’s installation was remote, but not alone: there were similar compounds ringing the entire periphery of the busy transportation hub, some private enterprises, some leased by governments friendly to the Empire to care for their diplomatic and national airships.

Each one had a painted sign identifying it – Gideon’s yard’s read Le Société Panthères de Ciel, Ltd., a curious and somewhat barbaric name for an airship concern.  Edward had the coachman merely pass the yard’s gate, then turn about and pass it again before depositing him at a supply shed and custom’s house half a mile away.  The man seemed irritated at the extra distance, but a generous tip insured his courteous departure.

Edward mumbled something about a better view to the civil servant on duty, a junior assistant customs officer of some sort who was intent upon his lunch, and the man waved him in.  He made his way up to the tiny three-storey “observation tower”, one of many along the wide stretches of the Aeroport, designed to allow passengers, guests, and ground controllers a better view of the sprawling complex.  From here you could see the dozens of mooring towers which seemed to be constantly busy with new ships arriving and old ones departing from all over the continent.  There was even a brass telescope there, so that the various numerals and symbols upon their flanks could be more readily espied for a mere two sous – though the overcast and constant drizzle made such attempts overly ambitious.  Edward made use of it, but it wasn’t the ships aloft he turned it upon.

He scanned the breadth and length of Gideon’s yard, where a dozen sheds clustered around a massive wooden hanger that looked like an enlarged barn.  The entirety was enclosed by a wooden fence nearly four meters high.  The perimeter of the compound was patrolled by some dusky-looking carbine-toting natives of some distant land, who seemed eager to shoot at someone.  There were no less than five of them at the gate, itself, and when a few beggar children who seemed to haunt every aeroport he’d ever been in came near, the guards wasted no time in turning them briskly away.

The more Edward watched, the more he grinned.  Whatever Gideon was doing in the yard, he did not want it known, that was certain.  The utilitarian iron mooring tower that peeked up over the sheds was empty, at the moment, but there were two more keen-eyed lookouts ensconced therein, with long, wicked-looking rifles at the ready, constantly searching the area around the yard.  All in all it reminded Edward more of a fortress than a manufactory.

But a manufactory it was.  Carts and lorries of all description seemed to be gaining access, once they presented their credentials to the guards, though Edward could see that the crew inside insisted that all materials be off-loaded in the foremost part of the yard, well-away from the hanger.  Upon retiring, every vehicle was subject to close scrutiny before it was allowed to leave.

This, then, would be a challenge, Edward decided, as he abandoned the observation tower.

Less so, it turned out, than he’d hoped for.  It took only ten francs under the desk to the attendant to discover that Capt. Becker’s ship, the Victrix, was scheduled to return from a brief trip to Berlin near sunset – if, the bitter clerk added, the sun deigned to show it’s face today before retiring.  A brief walk down the muddy road that swung around the yards provided Edward with the only other essential piece of information he needed to gain access, and the roots of a plan began to form.  Yet merely appearing as if out of nowhere was not sufficient to appease his desire for an impressive arrival.  He took steps to ensure that his appearance would be memorable.

He took his supper at the wine shop where waiting passengers took their comfort before they embarked, paying far too much for fare that would have made any self-respecting Parisian shudder.  While there, supping on the upper porch where he had a reasonable view of Gideon’s mysterious yard, he was able to monitor who was allowed in, and who was stopped at the gate by the armed savages that seemed to be everywhere.  Edward sketched out some notes in his notebook while he observed, and noted Gideon could have easily been raping innocent schoolgirls by the wagonload within.  But any Parisian gendarme would have balked at trying to get past the private army of dark-skinned warriors and their gleaming guns to preserve their virtue.

The interior of the compound held numerous sheds and huts, all surrounding the massive building the fence barely contained.  A few of the huts were nearly full houses, and one in particular was easy enough to pick out as Gideon’s residence.  It was a legitimate house, at lease four or five bedrooms, and it had several servants who went back and forth between it and the gate, or it and the kitchen, or it and the biggest building.  If there was a brain behind the hum of activity, it was there.  But before he got into there, he had to get past the gates.

Several deliveries arrived while he watched, and Gideon noted that they were each well-searched at the gate, their identities and business no doubt identified, before being aloud to pass within the compound, proper.  The walls were regularly patrolled, and the towers at the edges of the yard were constantly manned by his friend’s soldiers.  And twice while he sat there observing Edward witnessed a savage patrolling the exterior of the fence with a brace of fierce-looking wolfhounds.

It was a formidable defense, to be sure, but as Uncle Pete never failed to remind him, the greater the visible defense, the easier it was to penetrate it once you understood its weaknesses.  His uncle used the metaphor of an old widow: though she might protest mightily on the basis of her morality, she was just as willing as any maiden to part her legs when approached properly.  By the time Edward had finished his meal and a second glass of vin ordinaire, he knew exactly how to get this metaphorical widow to spread like a whore.

*                      *                      *

“So who is that mysterious whore Billy’s seein’ in town?” Tayanita asked Marta casually as she swabbed an acrid smelling concoction of liquid latex on to a broad canvass sheet in her “laboratory”.  It bore little resemblance to the pristine German laboratories she’d seen, the French versions at the University and the Academy of Science or even the hastily-built labs back in the Oklahoma Kingdom.  Indeed, it was little more than a shed tacked on to the massive hanger building, but it was where she and her protégé, Marta, worked on the millions of questions that needed to be answered before the Argo could be successfully built and launched.

She was testing the comparative weight ratios of rubberized canvas, which the French and British used as the outer envelopes for their airships, compared to the cotton denim cloth the Germans and Italians preferred. The outer envelopes did not need to be gas-tight, of course, as the interior lifting cells were, but they did have to be water-tight, fire-resistant (if not fire proof) yet strong enough to hold together under the punishing conditions of the atmosphere – but not weigh more than absolutely necessary.  Every kilogram of unnecessary weight was a loss.

The Atlan girl shrugged as she continued to stitch together the denim sheet that was next to be coated.

“I am not certain,” Marta answered, cautiously.  While she loved her friend dearly, the issue of William Bonney had been a sore spot for both of them.  “She must be fabelachtig, though.  Even the well-born women in Paris dress and act like whores – how much better, then, would the actual Parisian whores be?”

She and Tayanita had become close friends and confidants, as well as colleagues, despite the problems over the man they had shared.  Though Tayanita had been angry and jealous of the less-attractive Atlan woman, as their journey through New Orelans and their adventures with the Moriscan pirates beyond the Florida Straits had overtaken them on their journey to France, Tayanita had recognized a kindred spirit when it came to all things aeronautical.  Marta did not have her training and education, being destined for the more feminine world of early matrimony, but she had a nimble mind and a keen eye, and she, like Tayanita, had been around airships most of her life.  True, they had been the primitive Atlan variety, but the basic principals were the same.  If she did not share Tayanita’s talent for engineering, she shared her enthusiasm for building the Argo.

“You ain’t too wrong about that,” Tayanita admitted with a sigh.  “Never saw so much lace and silk in my life as there was in M. Belvoir’s gown when she came to call on Gid.  And talk about forward: she had her hand on his knee fast as a shot!  It’s like these French women breathe and sleep sex all the time.  Hard for us American girls to compete,” she said, a trace of bitterness in her voice.

“Do not worry, misje,” Marta reassured her, “They may capture a man’s attention for a few weeks, but they tire of them quickly.  Or so I’ve heard,” she added, a trace of doubt in her voice. Tayanita suddenly felt sympathetic to Marta – while she felt inadequate compared to these whorish Parisians, she was still aware of how much more attractive men still found her, compared to Marta, whose wide features and broad nose, not to mention her dusky complexion and dark eyes – made her homely by most accounts.

Marta had reveled in the brief relationship she’d enjoyed with Billy on the voyage across the Atlantic, but within weeks of arriving at the City of Lights Billy’s attention had turned towards the perfumed-and-belaced examples of French femininity the cosmopolitan Empire thrust at him so forcefully.  Their romance had faded within days, and had broken within a fortnight, under the pressure of such aggressive competition.  Marta still carried quite a torch for the dashing young American, but Billy’s eyes were easily distracted.  Indeed, even as they had brought the Victrix down in their yard for the first time there had been nearly a dozen airport whores huddled around the mooring tower waving and showing off their cleavage and their slender limbs.

Gideon had put a stop to that quickly, of course.  No prude, her half-brother was dedicated to running a smooth enterprise, and complicating matters with on-site prostitutes went against that ideal.  He had immediately restricted the entire yard to “outsiders”, depending upon his fierce Oklahoman marines to patrol the compound and keep the whores, thieves, and other airport scum at bay.  The men were still permitted liberal opportunities to enjoy their illicit favors off-premises, in their off-duty hours, but no one came past the second gate and into the secretive yard without written permission.

But that left the few ladies of the Victrix largely without company.  Tayanita was lucky – she had a few German engineers on her crew she could count on to service her womanly needs, secure in the knowledge that nothing more serious would arise from the liaison. But poor, plain Marta rarely attracted even their brief attention, and it was starting to bother her mightily.  She had even started mooning about Billy again, and that could not be a healthy thing to the Cherokee woman’s mind.

“Oh, I ain’t worried none – not much, anyway.  I know my future last name won’t be ‘Bonney’,” she reassured her friend as she dropped the heavy brush back into the evil-smelling bucket.  “But I’m just curious what manner of whore has got him so twitterpated.”

“I’m sure she is very beautiful,” Marta said, bitterly, as she hung up the denim sheet on the framework she’d built the day before.  “A beautiful, sweet-smelling, foul-mouthed nasty Parisian whore,” she completed, scathingly.  “Probably a Protestant whore, too,” she condemned, as if that made it worse somehow.

Tayanita had to giggle – that was one thing she adored about Marta, her polite forthrightness.  Tayanita herself had little patience for the long-winded way the French conducted business, preferring plainspoken American methods instead, and one of the things that had charmed her about the homely Atlan woman was her earnest manner.

“If only there were boy whores, too,” Tayanita sighed wistfully as she moved the bucket of latex over to the denim sheet.  “They say there are, down in that Moulin Rouge place they keep talkin’ about.  But from what I gather, they’re more interested in other boys than us delicate flowers.”

“My ‘delicate flower’ is in need of some tending, misje,” Marta said, wistfully.  “And I am near to thinking that paying for the service from a . . . professional gentleman might be the only way that occurs. Not even those savage braves that lope around here will pay me attention!” she pouted.

“Oh, honey, that ain’t no way to talk!” Tayanita soothed, lapsing back into the casual English her people spoke at their ease.  “Don’t worry, if these Frenchies know ‘bout anything besides wine, it’s how to get their jollies.  I heard tale of this device they build here, a special contraption—”

“For . . . masturbation?” Marta asked in a whisper, looking around scandalously.  “I, too, have heard such things, but such mechanical abominations must be a grievous sin . . .”

“You can’t tell me you haven’t rubbed your nubbin before,” Tayanita said, aghast.  “Every girl does it!”

“Not nuns,” Marta quickly pointed out.  “Never nuns.  And they would whip us if they even thought we had been . . . pleasuring ourselves.”

“That doesn’t mean you didn’t, though,” she observed.  “You do know how, don’t you?”

Marta blushed, her dark skin growing even darker.  “Yes.  I believe so.  There was a girl – her name was Anchelle, from the coast – she once showed some of us . . . what she did—”

“And you ain’t done it since then?”

“Well, with all that has happened . . .” Marta said, skeptically.

“Here,” Tayanita said gently, sitting up on her own desk and drawing up her knees.  “I know you have religious objections to this, but watch what I do, at least,” she said, not knowing what strange humor had came over her.  Why was she being this intimate with the girl?  They were friends, close friends, which was unusual considering their peoples were traditional enemies and had been at war all their young lives.  Compared to the Parisians, they were practically from the same clan.  But this was an intimacy that she had shared with no one.  Yet here she was, drawing her skirts up and peeling down the lacy drawers that seemed to be required among the fairer sex in this fair city.   Her slender pussy was exposed to her friend’s astonished sight.  Suddenly Tayanita’s loins were heavy with the dew of her excitement as her brown-skinned friend gazed enchanted at her brazenly displayed beaver.

“It’s real easy,” she breathed, as she parted her inner lips with her fingers.  “This up here, that’s your happy spot – rub it.  A lot.”  To demonstrate, she began making delectate circles around her clitoris with her hand, her breathing getting deeper and more ragged as she did so.  “You got to relax, though,” she said softly as her friend watched her perform the private ritual.  “Maybe stick a few . . . fingers inside yourself,” she said, exhaling pleasantly, “and run ‘em in and out, like they’re a real cock . . .” she said, demonstrating, “and it feels . . . real nice . . .”

“Are you . . . ?”

“Gettin’ there,” Tayanita agreed huskily, relaxing a little more, now that Marta had accepted the spectacle of her masturbation.  “It ain’t as nice as a real dick, but when a girl’s got . . . no place else to be . . . and no one to be with . . . it will get you through a hard night.  An’ sometimes it can keep a girl from thinkin’ with her cunny instead of her brain, and that’s a help.”

“It looks like fun,” the Atlan girl admitted, licking her lips.

“Oh, it is, it is,” she assured her as her fingers sped up their revolutions around her button.  “It’s a whole lot of fun – more fun than most boys, actually. Oh . . . OH!  Watch closely, Marta . . . here I . . . go!

With that the girl spasmed hard as her orgasm washed over her, shook her like a dog shakes a squirrel, and then deposited her gently back to earth.

“There,” Tayanita sighed as she pulled up her drawers.  “That was simple – and a lot of fun.  And no smelly, nasty, hateful man to deal with afterwards.”

“I don’t know, ‘Nita,” Marta said, doubtfully.  “The nuns . . . they said it was a sin . . .”

“You been sinnin’ since we met, Marta,” Tayanita chided.  “And you go to church more’n any body here.  Weren’t you fornicatin’ without the blessings of the Church all the way over the ocean?  How in hell is that somehow more godly than ticklin’ your twat your ownself?”

“Well . . . technically . . . that was rape,” Marta justified, quietly.  “I was – am – a prisoner of war, and therefore I am not in control of my destiny.”

“Well ain’t you just full of justifications today!” Tayanita howled.  “Rape? That weren’t rape.  I seen rape before, sad to say.  If anyone was getting’ raped, it was poor Billy.  You realize how much noise y’all made?  Enough where we could hear over the engines clear back in the Engine Room!”

“If it was rape,” Marta sniffed, indignantly, “then it was no sin.  That is what the priests say.”

“Likely why I ain’t a Christian,” Tayanita said, shaking her head as she coated the denim.  “All them rules about fuckin’ – ain’t right.  The Spirit put us here with perfectly good working girl parts, Marta, ain’t no good reason not to use them as intended.”

“Ignorant savage,” Marta spat, derisively. But she was blushing deeply at having

“Pretentious slut,” the Cherokee princess sneered.

“Blasphemous cunt!”

“Filthy Atlan whore!”

“You’re courting damnation!”

“You’re courtin’ cobwebs in your coochie!”

Both women stared at each other, then broke into gales of laughter.  It was a common and enjoyable game they had developed to pass the long hours spent running trials on materials and figuring out complex calculations.  ‘Swearing like an airman’ was a common expression, and both women had been around such rough trade for almost six months, and had learned a rich new vocabulary they never hesitated to try out on each other.  The exchanges were good natured and intended to amuse, not hurt, and they always ended in laughter.  This time, however, the laughter was cut short by the sudden peal of the alarm bell.

“What the hell?” Tayanita asked, confused.

“The alarm!” Marta said in a hushed whisper.  “Quickly: how many bells?”

“Three—no, four!” Tayanita said.  “Intruder!  Probably one o’ them pickpockets and sneaktheifs.”  She quickly rooted around in the large bag she carried, full of useful tools, and pulled out a wide belt from which was suspended a small but deadly revolver.  As she strapped it on her hips, Marta nodded, her face pale, and picked up a carbine that Gideon had thoughtfully posted in her shed for their protection.

The girls made a point of locking the laboratory securely, then made their way to the central courtyard in front of the yawning hanger where the Victrix slumbered and from which the Argo had yet to be born.  There was already a crowd of two-dozen, a mixture of Oklahoman marines and European crewmen, all of whom had armed themselves with deliberate speed.  A profusion of carbines and revolvers, not to mention implements of a ruder – but no less effective – sort bristled from the crowd.

Gideon was on the pedestal he’d erected there, addressing his folk like the lord he was.  His voice was loud, purposeful, and angry.

“—saw him around the front gate, asking questions about our yard.  Wet Fox sent him on his way, but the man disappeared a few moments later, and that’s when the sergeant on duty noticed the cash box we use to pay our suppliers was missing.  Since the front gate was bolted at that point, the only explanation is that the thief is still somewhere on the premises.  There will be five ounces of gold for any man who brings him to me alive, and two gold for his corpse.”

“It was a thief,” nodded Marta.

“Perhaps he will take you unawares and rape you,” offered Tayanita in a whisper.  “I’m sure you’d enjoy that.”

“Perhaps if he was handsome,” the Atlan girl conceded.  “I would not struggle overmuch.”

“Struggle?  You’d put him down and ride him like a rented horse!”

“Surely you have mistaken me for a woman of loose reputation?”

“You ain’t got no reputation right now, that’s the problem!” the Cherokee girl giggled as she checked the load on her pistol.  “Tell you what: we find the man, we take that reward money, go into town, and get us a couple o’ fellas.  Don’t care if they like boys – they got pricks that can rise, that’ll do.”

“We may have sex if we find this man?” Marta said, suddenly interested.  “Then lead the way, meisje, and I’ll destroy him!”

“You horny old . . . hey, see how the Marines are all headed for the walls?”

Marta nodded.  “It would make sense.  The thief would want to escape with his prize as expediently as possible.”

“Which is why goin’ towards where all the folk with guns are ain’t necessarily the best plan for him,” Tayanita pointed out.  “So let’s go up to the guard shack, take a look around, see what this fella got and then figure where he went.  Basic tracking.”

The two women wandered away from the resolute-looking men who were swarming the fences and found the route to the guard shed, where there were easily twice as many armed Indians as usual.  They were reluctant to let two women in to look around, but the respect they held for Tayanita – and the fact that both ladies in question were armed – allowed them into the scene of the crime.  Tayanita wasted no time, asking questions about the look of the criminal, exactly what happened, and expressed a desire to see where the stolen money box had been secured.

“Bolted to the wall,” noted Tayanita in a murmur.  “So he planned this.  Chief, how much money in the box?”

“Twenty, thirty francs,” Robert “Chief” Standing Bear answered.  “Plus some sous.  Hardly seems worth the effort.”

“It wasn’t,” agreed Tayanita sagely.  “And note what else was stolen?”

“The box?” Marta asked.

“The book,” Tayanita corrected.  “Gid’s big accounts book.  It’s gone.”

“Why would someone want that?”

“And why would someone after money not take that cigar box?” she asked, nodding towards the desk where an ornately carved and inlaid Moriscan box held fine cigars looted from the wreck of a Corsair the Victrix had overtaken.  “That box is worth forty francs by itself, not to mention the tobacco inside.”

“Yes, that is strange,” Chief admitted.

“So they took the book, but not the box,” reasoned Tayanita, quietly, opening the expensive piece.

“And this means?  Besides the fact that he does not care to smoke?”

“The thief wasn’t after money.  If he was after mere money, he would have taken the box, the cigars, and had them safely sold before he left the port.  Oh, he took the money, of course, but what he really wanted to take was the information in the accounts book.  How much we’ve spent, and with whom.”

“But why?”

“That,” agreed Tayanita, “is an excellent question, Marta.  All of our suppliers are of public record – all of the ones in France, at any rate.  So he wanted to see . . . how much we’ve spent, and with which vendors.  And on what.  Someone, it seems, is curious about the Argo.”

“Who even knows about the Argo?” Chief asked, mystified.

“Someone who wanted to know so badly they hired a thief to steal our account book.  And you say he left . . . this way?”

Fifteen minutes later, while the outbuildings were being thoroughly searched and the walls were being checked for the intruder, the pair of young women came out of the guard shack and strode resolutely across the compound to the old farmhouse that Gideon had converted into a residence fit for a captain.  And his engineer.

The old country house predated the airfield by a century, at least, but was snug, warm, dry, and even painted a lovely light blue color.  No one seemed to be searching it, so the girls were able to enter without notice.  Tayanita immediately drew her pistol and turned towards her brother’s hallowed study, where he kept his desk, some books, his safe, his papers, and – most importantly – the master plans she herself had drawn up in designing the Argo. If anyone was curious enough about their labors to steal the account book, then the blueprints and designs would be too rich a prize to pass up – not with the entire compound mobilized to search for a petty thief.

Indeed, Tayanita was gratified a moment later to discover the thief, right where she had deduced he was located.

Sitting at Gideon’s desk reading those same – very secret – plans was a young man no more than twenty five, neatly coiffed, clean shaven and professionally dressed.  He looked like a bright young accountant, or clerk at law, in his well-tailored dark suit.  After being around Frenchmen for almost half a year, she was able to determine that this man looked somehow “more English” – although, truth be told, she frequently found all Whites looked the same to her.  But this one was strikingly handsome, she had to admit.  He was puffing heartily on one of the Moriscan cigars from the gilt box from the guard shack while he studied, much to Tayanita’s horror, the master blueprints that she had painstakingly drawn herself.

“Excuse me,” she said, a deadly threat in her voice, “but I believe the tradesmen are expected to use the rear entrance.”  She spoke in English, because her French was awful and it was one of the languages she and Marta shared.  Besides, after six months of seeing how the whole of Paris dressed, the style of the man’s suit was decidedly English, even if his face might not be.

“This is a social call, actually,” the handsome young Englishman said, without looking up.  “This ship you’re building – it’s fantastic!  I’ve never seen anything like it!  It’s beautiful!”

“I’m glad you like it,” Tayanita said, evenly.  “As it may be the last thing you ever see!”

Finally, the intruder glanced up.  “Well, perhaps not the last,” he said, after a pause.  “Nor, I’m afraid, the fairest.  You have taken that honor.”

Tayanita had the good grace to blush, but her pistol never wavered.  “You have a gentle tongue, I see,” she said, when she had recovered from the unexpected flattery.

“That depends entirely on my mood and the lady I’m with,” he quipped.  “Not to mention the manner in which it may be deployed.  Would you be so kind as to summon Captain Becker for me?  Thank you.”

“Sir, it seems to have escaped your notice that I am armed,” she said, her anger rising.  “I have yet to kill anyone on this continent, but you are making that exceedingly hard to avoid!  In any case, yes, Captain Becker should be informed of your capture.  Tom!  Black Tom!” she called over her shoulder.  When no response was forthcoming, she glanced at Marta.  “Go seek my brother and tell him what has happened.”

“Will you be all right with him?” the Atlan girl asked.

“I have the gun, he is the trespasser,” the Cherokee princess replied.  “As far as being ravished,” she added, scornfully, “he hardly looks the type.”

“As you say,” Marta said doubtfully, but she left in good haste.

“I’m not, actually,” the stranger commented.

“You are not what?  A trespasser?”

“Oh, I’m guilty of that.  And of evading your stout savages.  And of breaking into this house in broad daylight without a single one of you witnessing the act.  I meant to say, ‘I’m not the type to ravish a lady’ . . . without her express permission.”

“I assure you, that shall not be forthcoming,” Tayanita said, raising the weapon a little higher to emphasize her argument.

The man shrugged and smiled, displaying dimples that revealed a boyish nature.  It unnerved and frustrated her that he was not displaying an adequate amount of fear of her and her pistol.  “The day is still young.  So, in what capacity do you serve Captain Becker?”

“You are not to do the interrogation, Mr. Thief.  I am the one holding the gun!”

“So you have said, thrice now, and yet you haven’t fired and I haven’t been remotely concerned that you would do so.  Does that not speak of a more complicated affair than merely catching a thief?”

“What?  If I have restrained myself, Sir, it is out of a fear of giving in to my savage nature – which I assure you, my people are well known for!”

“Yes, I’d say you were about half English,” he nodded.  “A beastly people.  I’m one, myself, sad to say.”

“Are you not concerned for your skin, Sir?” she asked, quivering at the stranger’s temerity – and wondering about his accuracy.

“Usually,” he admitted, sublimely. “But my foremost concern regarding my skin is what the most expedient means would be to press it excitedly against your own.”

“You go too far, Sir!” she warned.  She blushed, despite herself, and realized that she was attracted to this cocky, self-assured stranger.

“Do I?” the thief mused.  “I often wonder if I go far enough.  I had considered making my entry by means of a line dropped from an airship, but discarded the idea as too . . . showy.  I prefer a subtler style.  Now Gideon,” he chuckled, “Gideon would not have considered such a sudden appearance as ‘subtle’, unless there was a lion or a camel or something involved, and then he’d only consider it ‘mildly interesting’.”

“Yes, Miss?” asked the deep and pleasant voice of Black Tom, who acted as Gideon’s majordomo while they were aground.  If the fact that she was holding a loaded pistol on a stranger in his master’s office disturbed the Negro in the slightest, he did not show it.

“Tom, if you would not mind, please pour two glasses of wine for myself and our guest.  Three, actually – the Captain will be joining us.”  She spoke lightly, but through clenched teeth.

“Yes, Miss,” the sharply-dressed man nodded, and disappeared.  A moment later he handed a winestem full of red – a Burgundy, to which her brother was partial – to Tayanita, and without getting in the line of fire, set a glass near to the thief’s elbow on the desk – receiving a polite thank you for his trouble.  The third glass he deposited on a nearby table.  “How many for lunch, Miss?  Will you be dining with us today?”

“Yes, I think I will be,” she agreed.  “Set a table for four.  We can always remove a seat, if it isn’t required any more.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“This is splendid,” the mysterious stranger nodded after sipping the wine.  “From Burgundy, I would have to guess an ’88?”

“If you are seeking to impress me,” Tayanita said, sipping her own glass, “you will be hard pressed to do so.  Although I admit your stealth in breeching our compound has piqued my curiosity.  How did you do that?”

“Easily enough,” the thief demurred.

“And you act as if you know my brother?”

“Know him well,” the thief agreed, congenially, as he continued to smoke the cigar and sip the wine.  “To his health!” he added, raising the glass.

“Cheers,” she nodded.  The pistol did not waver.

“So, what is a gloriously radiant woman such as yours—oh, hello Gid, outstanding vintage!” the thief said, interrupting himself as her brother stomped into the house, half a dozen of his Sky Panther marines behind him bristling with weaponry.

“It’s an ’88,” the airship captain said, dully.

“Thought so,” the man nodded.  “It’s splendid . . . but it will be radiant in a few years.”

Gideon crossed the room and retrieved the glass that had been prepared for him.  “Good to see you Edward.  Oh, gentlemen, please cancel the alarm,” he added over his shoulder to the bronzed warriors.  They nodded and left without any further discussion.  “I see you met Tayanita,” he said, as the thief vacated his chair.

“Lovely woman, truly beautiful,” the man her brother called Edward said, affably.  “Is she your bride?  Or your fiancé?  Or something less . . . formal?”

“She’s my sister, actually,” Gideon said, putting his mud-stained boots up on an ottoman.  Edward took one of the facing chairs, while Tayanita still had not lowered her weapon.  While the men were acting like old friends, she knew that Gideon’s lack of an order to do so was no oversight: clearly he was suspicious of this “old friend” who was so free with his property and security.  “Half sister.”

Edward’s eyebrows raised in surprise.  “She? She’s the one your . . . oh, dear God, it is such a pleasure to meet you, then!” he said, roaring with laughter.  “And such an enchanting creature, too, to be at the heart of that tempest.  Oh, what a scandal you have left behind you, Gid!  Your mother is livid, your father is . . . well, I would have a care before you dropped in over the holidays.  Might want some of those savages with you.”

“I doubt they could stand one of Mater’s vicious assaults,” Gideon chuckled, wryly.

“I don’t say you’re wrong.  Oh, by the way: your strongbox,” the thief said, pulling it out from behind an aeronautical globe in the study.

“Why did you steal it?” Gideon asked, curiously.

“Because it got your attention.  You had to know a thief was about.  I thought it a fair warning to get your people mobilized for a search for me.  That’s an impressive cadre you’ve built, Old Man.”

“And yet you broke in anyway.  Sissy, when we were at Rugby, Edward had the most amazing talent of . . . acquisition you had ever seen!”

“So, you know this man is a thief?” she asked, skeptically.

“I prefer ‘gentleman burglar’, actually,” Edward offered.

“I prefer ‘housebreaker extraordinaire!  You may holster your weapon, Sissy, and join us for a bit.  Edward was one of my closest friends from school, but afterwards he . . . got involved with disreputable folk.”

“Please,” Edward dismissed, “I’ve always been involved with disreputable folk.  It makes a man truly appreciate a reputation.”

“In any case, Edward steals things – expensive things – from very rich people.”

“The truth comes out at last,” Edward sighed.  “So you knew?”

“Of course.  Don’t let it concern you, Old Man, I didn’t mind.  You never stole anything from me, personally.  And you shared your loot in school too often for me to begrudge you a few silver spoons.  I was amused, actually – the way you made the rounds.  Always seemed to have some brass, never seemed to work for it.”

“Never work for it?” Edward asked, astonished.  “Are you joking?  Burglary is hard work, I’ll have you know.  There’s as much art to it as science, and if one is to remain a burglar long, one must put in endless hours of preparation for the tiniest assignment!”

“Really?  Is that how you stole my cousin’s silver Swiss pocket watch?” Gideon countered.  “A grand, elaborate plan with meticulously detailed preparation?”

“He passed out drunk at cards, and I took an opportunity,” Edward admitted.  “All right, I admit, there’s as much initiative in the art as preparation.  But it is hardly easy.  Not if you’re good at it.”

“And are you?” asked Tayanita, impressed with the man, despite herself.

“Did I not just break into your home in an armed camp in broad daylight?  With no witnesses?”

“He’s one of the best in Europe,” Gideon assured her.

“Well, as long as you’re associating yourself with a high class of criminal,” Tayanita said, beginning to relax a bit.  Perhaps the wine was soothing her nerves.  “By the way, I am indeed claiming my five ounces of gold for capturing him, Gideon.  I need to get Marta . . . serviced.”  And herself, too, she added, silently, somewhat to her dismay.

There was just something about this damned city that made a girl want to throw her legs up to the heavens and hump every cock that happened by!  She didn’t know if it was the finery, the architecture, or the fabulous cosmetics, but the city of Paris enchanted you, reached out and grabbed you by your cunt and made you want to fuck.  Even the presence of this Edward, a comparative stranger, was having a most lubricating effect on her virtue.  That was one reason why she didn’t blame Billy as much about his infidelity with Marta – everyone in this town was horny, from the lusty young Emperor to the lowliest scullery maid.  And the cosmopolitan nature of the city drew the horny from all over the world, compounding the problem.

She had heard a rumor that the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame was behind it – that the church had been built originally on the site of a pagan temple of a particularly lusty divinity, a kin of Pan’s, and that Paris’ well-deserved reputation for licentiousness was his revenge.  She liked that thought – she found the European manner of religion to be stuffy and impractical – not to mention not much fun.

The wine helped – she rarely drank it, preferring good German beer instead, but in Paris wine ran like water – better than Parisian water, actually.  She tolerated the flavor, but the effects of the alcohol were the same as beer.  And the Parisians seemed to drink it at all hours of the day.  That had to contribute to the lusty nature of the city.

“Is Marta your horse?  Dog?” Edward asked, curious.

“She’s my aeroarchitechtural protégé,” Tayanita corrected.  “And if she doesn’t see some joy soon, she will be unbearable.”  That went for both women, of course – Tayanita nearly blushed at the memory of her brazen display of self-love earlier.  If she did not soon find relief . . .

“So you’re an . . . engineer?”

“I am the engineer,” she corrected, smoothly.  “A distinction I truly hope you’ll bear in mind.”

“Oh!  Of course, mademoiselle,” Edward assured her.  “I meant no disrespect.  If you are half as talented in your field as your brother is in his . . .”

“Half?  She eclipses me, Old Man.  Really, Edward, ‘Nita’s extraordinary, she really is,” Gideon smiled indulgently.  “She’s not only my chief engineer, she’s the chief architect of this,” he said, dramatically spreading his arms to encompass the large sheaf of design diagrams covering the desk before him.  “She’s the wizard behind the Argo.”

“Now I am the one who stands impressed,” Edward said, quietly, after a moment’s consideration.  “That ship is . . . it’s no less than magnificent.  Glorious.

“You know how to read blueprints?” she asked, surprised.

“A gentleman burglar is equipped with all sorts of unusual skills, my dear,” he assured her, a silky tone in his voice that she found both pleasant and irritating all at once.  “I can read a blueprint, but more importantly I can recognize a truly unique design when I see one.  This will be the biggest, most extraordinary thing aloft—”

“If it gets built,” Tayanita finished, sourly.

“What?” Edward asked in surprise.  “I thought you came back from America loaded with gold and jewels.”

“Not as such – but I did come back a wealthy man.  And wealth I earned in my own hand, by the by, not taken from my father’s,” her brother said, proudly.  “Yet I have this yard to pay for, my crew to pay, plus the cost of this ship,” he sighed, concern haunting his eyes.  “I have not spoken openly about it, but . . . well, my funds will run out in months – and it will be at least two years before the Argo is skyworthy.”

“It’s true,” Tayanita confirmed.  “I’ve had to reduce some of my expenditures . . . and we are making progress on the envelope structure, and the gondola is mostly framed in, but . . .”

“Bah!  We took plenty from that Moriscan corsair,” Gideon reminded her.  “Enough for a few additional months, at least.  And I can always sell off a precious tank of Helium to keep us afloat.”

“Don’t you dare!” she almost shouted.  “That noble element is the key to our whole enterprise!”

“I know, I know,” Gideon agreed, clearly frustrated with the prospect, “but if it’s the only way forward . . .”

“We can go raiding in the Victrix if we need more funds,” she countered, shaking her head.  “Air piracy isn’t my natural calling, but if it keeps the creditors at bay . . .” This was not a discussion she wanted to be having now, especially in front of this . . . surprisingly handsome stranger.

“See, Edward?  I’m a thief as well,” Gideon chuckled.  “I just steal to a larger scale.  But if I don’t, then all the money I’ve spent thus far will have been wasted.”

“Actually,” Edward said, mildly, “I think I may have a solution . . . for all of our problems.”