Authors: Ava Morgan
Tags: #Curiosity Chronicles, #Book One
Rhys remembered what Lydia told him of her deceased husband. How sad. She was too young to be a widow. What happened to Galen Dimosthenis? He wondered during the morning of departure as he rose before dawn to ready the ship to set sail.
By the time daylight came, Malcolm was already barking orders to the crew.
“Ready to go back to the cold Channel waters already?” Rhys quipped as he read over the ship’s estimated travel coordinates that Finley prepared yesterday.
Malcolm harrumphed. “I couldna sleep last night. I kept thinking I heard those metal contraptions walking in the cargo hold.”
“You should cease reading scary bedtime stories. Lydia disabled the automatons.”
“I’m not fond of bringing her on board, either. You know what’s said about women on ships.”
“Surely you don’t believe that old fishmonger’s tale about women being bad luck.”
Malcolm did his best to pretend otherwise. “It could be trouble keeping the men away from her.”
Rhys had already thought about that. “Lydia will have my cabin. I’ll stay in the crew’s quarters.”
“Where is the lass, anyway? Didn’t you tell her to be here at first light?”
Rhys lifted his eyes as the sun began its ascent. What was keeping Lydia? Perhaps she was at the palace with the king and Nikolaos. They had yet to arrive to see the crew off.
Finley called down from the door of the navigation room. “Captain, shall we weigh anchor?”
“Shortly. We have to wait on Lady Dimosthenis.”
“Look ‘round to see if there’s another pair of pants running about. She may already be on board.” Malcolm’s comment produced laughter from the crew.
“Enough jokes. Ready the engine,” Rhys ordered.
No sooner had he uttered the phrase than Lydia came striding towards the shore’s edge. A man walked with her, bearing one of her smaller travel trunks. She carried the other. Rhys took a longboat to meet them onshore.
Eschewing conventional ladies traveling clothes, she had on fitted dark trousers tucked into black boots. A utilitarian vest was cinched over her blouse with straps that crossed and buckled around her waist. At least no knives or cartridges were present this time.
“Are we ready to sail?” she asked.
Rhys did not let the distraction of her figure, clad within the corseted structuring of her vest and fitted pants keep him from giving her a piece of his mind. “The crew and I have been ready for an hour.”
“I was saying goodbye to my mother. She couldn’t watch me sail away. This is my father Hector Korba.” She indicated to the older gentleman standing beside her.
Rhys then noticed the resemblance between the two of them. “How do you do, Mr. Korba?”
“Ambassador, I am entrusting you with the safety of my only child. Promise me that she will be protected and receive the utmost respect from you and your men.”
” Lydia muttered. “I will be alright.”
“I will hear it from the ambassador.” The man’s eyes never left Rhys.
Rhys saw where Lydia got her boldness from. “Sir, I will personally see to Lady Dimothenis’ every need. No harm will come to her on my watch.”
“Nor mine.” Nikolaos strode down the embankment, flanked by four guards wheeling a cart piled high with luggage. Dressed for travel, he wore a shorter red robe and dark trousers. “King Sabba insists that Lydia not travel alone. I will accompany her.”
Rhys heard Lydia’s soft gasp. Her father squared off against Nikolaos.
“What agenda do you have, Lord Abeiron?”
“That of King Sabba’s, Hector. I am her appointed guardian. If you don’t believe me, ask His Majesty.”
Rhys saw the king of Aspasia come down to shore, flanked by ten guards.
Nikolaos wore a satisfied smile as he motioned for the palace guards to bring his trunks forward. “Kindly direct them to my guest cabin, Ambassador Cartret. They will also need accommodations.”
“There are no guest cabins.” Rhys held his peace in front of Aspasia’s king, although he wanted very much to protest Nikolaos’ attendance on the journey. “Space is tight on a ship. Lydia has the only private quarters. You’ll have to room with the crew.”
Nikolaos kept his face expressionless. “I shall do what I must to ensure the lady’s protection.”
“I can’t spare room for your guards.”
Sabba scanned the top deck. “I see but a six-man crew, Ambassador.”
“Your Majesty,” Lydia said, “I saw the ship’s lower decks. Most of the space houses the engine. There is a galley and cargo hold, but not spare rooms for passengers.”
“I could show you, if you’d prefer, ” Rhys offered.
“I trust Lady Dimosthenis’ observations,” the king said. He embraced Lydia. “Godspeed, Lady Dimosthenis. When you reach New Britannia, send word of your progress.”
“I will, Your Majesty.”
Sabba nodded to Rhys. “I leave you to set sail. Albeit brief, your visit has been both informing and favorable.” With that, he left the beach, along with the palace guards that had deposited Nikolaos’ trunks in the sand.
Rhys afforded Lydia and her father a moment to say their goodbyes while he signaled for his crew to cast another longboat to shore. Fifteen minutes later, he stood on deck with Nikolaos and Lydia.
Rhys called for the crew to weigh anchor. The sooner he left the Aspasian port, the sooner he’d be done with surprise changes to his plans. “Follow me, Lydia. I’ll escort you to your cabin. Wait here, Lord Abeiron.” He secretly enjoyed seeing Nikolaos’ face twist as the man was forced to loiter about the deck.
Lydia’s precise footsteps followed him. He increased his pace, moving past the surrounding steel walls that were welded to curve around the shape of the vessel. The engine’s steady hum could be heard throughout the corridor.
“Rhys, slow down.”
He halted and pivoted on his feet. “Whatever business is between you and Nikolaos, I won’t have it affecting this journey.”
The ship lurched as it cast off. Lydia stopped herself from crashing into him, splaying her hand against the wall before she could pitch forward. “I didn’t know he was coming with us.”
“Why is Nikolaos really here?”
She looked behind her as though the chief adviser was hiding on the steps. “I stand to inherit the Aspasian throne if the king and queen don’t produce an heir. My husband was Sabba’s only next of kin.”
“So Nikolaos wants to marry you for the lineage.” Rhys’ muscles tightened in a flash of hostility as he considered Nikolaos’ ambition. “I witnessed his courtly display as he dragged you into the dining hall last week. I take it Sabba is unaware of how you’re being treated by his most trusted adviser.”
Lydia rubbed her arm as though recalling the event made it hurt. “I snubbed Nikolaos’ advances that night.”
“He should have heeded.”
“It doesn’t concern you.”
“It does now. You’re my responsibility until we reach New Britannia.”
Rhys walked to the end of the corridor and unlocked his cabin door. “You’ll stay here. Keep the key on you at all times.” He gave it to her. “Malcolm will see to your meals.”
She closed her fingers around the key. “Can I venture to top deck?”
“Only if I’m with you.”
She hooded her eyelids. More sultry than intimidating, but Rhys decided not to bring that to her attention.
“And don’t bother the crew. I need them focused on making the journey home.”
Lydia pocketed the key. “For what it’s worth, I don’t like the idea of Nikolaos sailing with me, either.”
“Then I suggest you keep your door locked.” He left her to attend to his second passenger.
On deck, Nikolaos watched Aspasia grow smaller in the distance. His robe billowed in the breeze. Three days’ exposure to saltwater and wind and it would be reduced to an expensive rag to mop the decks. “Has Lydia been seen to?”
“She’s my charge now. You needn’t worry about her.”
“As her guardian, it’s my duty to do so.”
“She’s within her accommodations. My crewmen are to not disturb her. The same applies to you.”
“With all due respect, Lady Dimosthenis and I are subjects of Aspasia, not New Britannia.” Nikolaos’ mouth remained locked in a tight smile.
“You are passengers on my ship. You will abide by my rules. Is that clear?”
“Very well, Ambassador.”
“Captain will suffice.”
Nikolaos glided down the steps and waited at the base. “My quarters, if you would, Captain.”
Rhys glared at him. It was going to be a long voyage.
After depositing her small toiletry case on the bedside table, along with a pistol given to her by her father, Lydia assessed her new surroundings. There was no mistaking this was Rhys’ cabin.
His effects were arranged neatly around the efficiently furnished room. On the polished surface of the mahogany desk, a heavy brass compass served as a paperweight to stationery engraved with Rhys’ initials and ambassadorial title.
She proceeded to a narrow door nestled in the corner of the back wall. She opened it to find a water closet with facilities, a sink, and a curious glass cabinet with a copper nozzle protruding from the wall.
Lydia turned a knob. Cold water shot out of the nozzle. She drenched her sleeve as she turned the knob back into its original position. The water flow ceased. That which had fallen swirled on the tiled floor of the cabinet before going down a drain.
Marvelous. Indoor plumbing on a ship. Only the wealthier homes in Aspasia contained such.
Lydia blotted her sleeve with a towel before leaving the water closet. A knock at the cabin door shook her from her musings. “Your ladyship.” Malcolm’s gruff voice sounded from the other side.
He barged in as soon as she unlocked the door. He shook a wooden tea tray. The teapot clattered against a saucer holding two stacked biscuits. “Where do you want this?”
“The desk.” Lydia scurried out of his way before he could run her over in his haste to deposit her breakfast. Tea leaked from the spout to drop on the desk. Muttering an oath, Malcolm used the hem of his shirt to wipe the surface dry.
“I’ll come back tonight with supper.”
“Thank you, Mr. Clark.”
Her expressed gratitude made him slow his harried movement. “I see you discovered the ship’s water pipes.” Malcolm looked at her wet sleeve. “You’ll be in here for the trip duration. I’ll bring some sails in need of mending to keep you occupied.”
“I…I don’t sew, Mr. Clark.”
“Well, it’s not that I don’t. I can’t, at least not very well.”
“Women tinkerers.” Malcolm ducked out of the room like a bull, his head and lumbering shoulders leading the rest of his body.
Lydia poured herself a cup of tea. She shuddered as the bitter liquid hit her tongue. If the British were exacting in their tea preparation, then Malcolm was the exception.
Teacup in hand, she circled the small room again, looking at the brass knobs of the desk and bookcase. Though she stifled the urge to nose around in Rhys’ belongings, she couldn’t help remain curious. Rhys was bundled with contradictions, the least of which were his assorted occupations of ambassador, COIC agent, and merchantman. Beneath that charm, there was another aspect of him, something not very refined at all. She saw glimpses of it in his dark eyes when he gazed at her for a little too long and in his touch when he shielded her in the cavern. Now she was traveling on a ship with him. Unless she confined herself to her cabin for the entire duration and refused to go up on deck for fresh air, she’d see him again. And often.
Lydia let another sip of bitter tea wash down her throat. Rhys intrigued her, and she didn’t know what to do about it.
Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Sardinia
“I should have given Lord Abeiron his own space upon the ship,” Rhys remarked to Malcolm on the fourth morning of their voyage. “Then we’d all be able to sleep at night and breathe through our noses.”
Nikolaos stood on the other side of the deck, shoulders and head over the rail. Well into a nasty bout of seasickness, he kept the men awake at night in the crew’s quarters with the sounds and smells of his distress.
That morning, the crew took breakfast above deck instead of in the galley, where they would be forced to experience Nikolaos’ illness in close quarters.
Rhys ate a bowl of porridge. “Have you taken a meal to Lydia yet?”
Malcolm nodded as he swallowed coffee. “Aye, but she didn’t answer the door. Her dinner tray was outside, untouched. These Aspasians don’t take well to sailing.”
“Or she’s already homesick.” By Rhys’ calculations, the ship would reach the open waters of the Atlantic in two days’ time.
Malcolm let his mug clatter against the ship’s rail. “Maybe self-starvation is the lass’ way of not going to New Britannia.”
Rhys mused on Lydia’s circumstances. Since the agreement was signed, he pondered the merit of granting her a full production license after all. She made a compelling argument. But what would the COIC say? “She wouldn’t starve herself to prove a point. She’s faithful to stand by her work.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. She’s proved honest.”
Malcolm took another swig of coffee. “But Rhys, she has that look on her face, the kind all women get when they start to snooping around. I hope you hid anything important in your cabin.”
Rhys thought about his COIC correspondence locked away in the bookcase. They detailed his prior missions. Unless Lydia broke a glass panel, she wouldn’t gain access to them. Still…
“I’ll see about her.” He set his empty breakfast bowl on the damp floor of the decking and went to his cabin.
Lydia’s breakfast tray rested outside the door. Steam rose from the bowl of porridge and condensed along a portion of the wall. He rapped his knuckles on the door. “Lydia?”
He heard her feet pad across the floor before she opened the door. Rhys escorted her on deck yesterday afternoon, but overnight her face had lost its vibrancy, replaced by a sickly, slightly greenish pallor. A fine sheen of perspiration covered her brow. Her eyes were listless as she looked up at him.