THE ADMIRAL'S LADY
by Rachel Howe
They decided, after some discussion, that Louise should be seconded to the Nelson Institute for two afternoons and one full day per week. She was officially designated as a Research Assistant, a conveniently vague title that satisfied bureaucracy while giving little idea of the true nature of her work.
To the casual passer-by, the Institute was nothing more than a modern glass-and-concrete office block in a quiet street close to the Docks, with a pair of smartly uniformed guards at the entrance and a scrawl of ordinary-looking barbed wire along the wall of the parking lot. What most passers-by did not realize was that the grounds behind the main building stretched all the way down to a complex of wet and dry docks on the waterfront. Between the offices and the docks lay a tangle of sheds and block-houses that amounted to a small shipyard, with a half-built Flying Sub beginning to take shape in the largest shed.
The Admiral lived on the top floor of the main building, in three rooms littered with notes and sketches and cluttered with possessions that in ten years he had never found the time to finish unpacking. Guest rooms occupied the remainder of that floor: the rest of the building was a maze of offices and laboratories.
The Admiral spent most of the first morning showing Louise over the complex, introducing her to the scientists in the laboratories and computer rooms and the engineers in the sheds, and incidentally making it obvious that she was in his confidence. She was fascinated by the variety of projects: everything from genetic engineering to nuclear reactor technology seemed to come under the broad heading of "marine research". It was a whole new world to her: her knowledge of most branches of science did not go much beyond college level, and was mainly theoretical. Even the Admiral's descriptions of some of his pet projects had not prepared her for this: rooms full of bewildering arrays of blinking lights, festooned with cables like vines in a jungle; strange creatures caged behind thick glass; tanks and pipework and valves whose uses she could barely understand even when they had been explained to her. It might have been the floor polish, but she was almost sure that there was something in the very air of the place that made it different from anywhere she had ever been -- a compound of oil and electricity and hot plastic and obscure excitements. The Admiral was interested in everything that went on, asking penetrating questions, scribbling equations and sketches on any available writing surface, peering down microscopes and poring over blueprints, sometimes almost forgetting Louise in his eagerness to catch up on the progress that had been made during his long absence. She followed meekly in his wake, asking occasional questions of her own and charming a shy refugee mathematician with a few words in his own language.
The Admiral's strength was not quite equal to his enthusiasm: several times he sat down rather hastily, and by the end of the tour he was leaning heavily on Louise's arm. When they regained the privacy of his office he sank down on the nearest chair, and stayed there for several minutes. Louise brought him a glass of water from the desk, and then waited. The office was a big, pleasant room with a sea view, panelled and carpeted and full of fascinating objects: a fully-rigged model of a sailing ship; a sixteenth-century astrolabe; a four-foot nautilus shell. Framed photographs of the Seaview lined most of one wall, while a magnificent view of the Earth from space, nearly six feet across, dominated another.
"Well, what do you think?" the Admiral demanded when he had caught his breath.
"What can I say?" Louise turned away from the well-stocked bookshelves. "I'm impressed -- overwhelmed. I'd no idea half those things were even possible."
"Almost anything is possible," Nelson said, at least half seriously. "The hard part is sorting out what's worthwhile and what is simply too dangerous to fool with. That's something a lot of scientists never learn -- or not until it's too late."
Louise nodded gravely, not feeling herself qualified to comment on what was obviously a conclusion derived from painful experience.
"I want to teach you a little practical electronics," he said, changing tack.
"Electronics? Do you think I could?"
'I don't see why not -- if you're willing to try."
"Of course -- if you think it would be useful."
"It's just a theory," he said, looking thoughtfully at her. "There must be useful technical information stored away in those memories of yours -- but you haven't the background to access it. If I can give you a few reference points, we may be able to get at the information -- find out what kind of technology Arroth has, and how to handle it. But we'll have to start at the beginning."
"It might work," Louise said dubiously. "I'd certainly like to try."
It did not take long for the Press to realize the possibilities of the intimacy between Louise and the Admiral. They had that first lunch together in privacy, but within a few days it became difficult for them to do anything, outside the guarded grounds of the Institute, without an audience of reporters and camera-crews. What the media called public opinion (meaning the views of a handful of editorial writers and television anchorpersons) was divided over the nature of the relationship: while one camp held Louise up as yet another victim of the Admiral's schemes, a sickly, timid creature whom he was exploiting for his own purposes, another depicted her as a scheming hussy, preying on his weakness. One naive young columnist did venture to suggest that they were simply two people who had, albeit rather late in life and quite inexplicably, fallen in love, but no-one took this very seriously. Louise tried not to be disturbed by all this, but she was not used to living in the limelight, and she had not been quite prepared for the lengths to which some journalists would go for a new angle on the story. One morning she found her unsatisfactory high-school record spread over two pages of the Santa Barbara Herald, accompanied by lurid accounts of some of her fainting spells, allegedly obtained from former classmates. The day after that, the Pacific Daily carried an exclusive interview, headlined "I DATED THE ADMIRAL'S WEIRD GIRLFRIEND," with a man who had once, more than five years previously, taken her out to dinner. That rather amused her, particularly as there was hardly a word of truth in it: the man had obviously forgotten her even more completely than she had forgotten him. The Admiral, however, was more indignant on her behalf than he had ever been on his own, so that she had difficulty dissuading him from seeking a confrontation with the unfortunate interviewee.
Meanwhile, Louise divided her time at the Foundation between learning electronics and documenting her memories of the Lost City. Either task was liable to spread well beyond her allotted working hours: more often than not, the afternoons stretched into evenings. Had the Admiral's strength not still been so uncertain, she would have been happy to work for much longer, but she was always careful to ensure that he ate regularly and took sufficient rest, and that circumscribed her activities considerably. The new study fascinated her, and, as she had a quick, retentive mind and neat fingers, she learned rapidly. Before long, she was wiring up complex circuits under the Admiral's direction, and even suggesting refinements of her own. As she began to understand the principles behind such work, some of the most obscure parts of her ancient memories gained meaning. Dismantling the ancient devices she had found provided some valuable clues, but they soon went beyond what those few fragments of technology could reveal. She found, to the Admiral's delight, that she could not only reproduce technical drawings from deep in her subconscious, but also translate them into modern terms and even puzzle out the purpose of the designs.
Despite the attentions of the press and the demands of their work, they did manage to spend some time relaxing together, driving in the mountains behind Santa Barbara or eating lunch in quiet restaurants, discussing anything and everything. The Admiral's regular staff at first looked rather askance on these excursions, but they soon realized that, in her quiet way, Miss Delamere was taking very good care of him. She never appeared to fuss over him or make an issue of his physical limitations, but she never let him become over-tired.
"Harry," Louise said suddenly, one glorious day of Indian summer when they had declared a holiday and taken a picnic to one of her favourite spots. "What were you doing twenty years ago?"
Nelson, drowsy with fresh air and sunshine, turned slowly to look into her face. Grass dried and bleached by the summer crunched under him as he moved. "Is there any more of that excellent fruit-cake?" he asked.
Louise laughed softly. It had only been in last few days that he had begun to enjoy his food: she liked to tease him a little about his returning appetite, but she was always delighted when he expressed a liking for anything. "I think there's a little left," she said, reaching into the picnic basket. "I must remember to tell Mother you liked it." Agnes Delamere's doubts about the Admiral had persisted for an hour or two into a rather tense family dinner, but had dispersed completely when he repaired her dishwasher with a few deft turns of a screwdriver.
"Twenty years ago," Nelson said dreamily, when he had consumed the last piece of cake. "Let me see . . ." The ocean was spread out before them, deep sapphire shading to indigo, embroidered here and there with patches of lacy foam. Behind them an empty hillside, sibilant with insects, ran up to meet the sky. He lay back in the grass, slipping his arm out of the sling and stretching it out under the sky, savouring this rare moment of peace. It was not often that he and Louise could simply be together: they were both too busy, together or separately, and it was not easy to conduct a courtship in the full glare of hostile publicity. Even now their privacy was partly an illusion: there were two security men waiting in the car not far away, on the road that was hidden by the hill's slope, and he had a two-way radio for use in emergencies.
"My first command," he said presently. "A rusty old survey vessel called the Pegasus, with a crew of thirty. It wasn't what I'd wanted: I was hoping for a submarine, but somebody thought I needed a lesson." He laughed, ruefully reminiscent. "Maybe they were right, at that. I certainly learned a lot from the old Pegasus . . . things about keeping a collection of rusty plates afloat in anything the sea could throw at us, and how to handle so-called experts who wanted to interfere in the running of the ship. But I guess the most important thing I learned, churning through the forgotten corners of the oceans, charting trenches and underwater mountains from an old-fashioned one-man diving bell, was that I didn't want to wind up just sitting behind a desk ordering other people into danger. It took me a while to figure out what I did want to do, though -- and years to do it."
He fell silent for a while, looking up at Louise as she sat beside him. Her face was shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat: in a pale, flowing dress, with her hair in one long braid down her back, she looked oddly ethereal, like a mirage that might dissolve into the heat haze at any moment.
"No regrets?" she asked softly.
Not for the first time, he wondered what would have happened if, two decades before, a brash, ambitious young officer had encountered a shy, half-educated girl working in a used bookstore. Probably, he thought, nothing would have happened at all: it had taken the years between to fit them so perfectly for one another. "It's dangerous, fooling around with time," he said obliquely. "Right now, the only thing I regret is that I never learned to paint."
"It is a beautiful day." Louise turned a little away to look out to sea. "So many different colours in the water . . ."
"If there was ever a moment I'd like to keep for ever, this would be it," Nelson murmured, amused by her unawareness of the picture she made herself. It had become almost a game, trying to slip compliments past her defences: he could never be sure when she would unfold like a flower in the sun and when she would simply, though never unkindly, laugh at him. His latest effort had gone so far wide of the mark that she had never even noticed it: caught up in the beauty of the day, she had no self-consciousness at all.
The beam came like a bolt of purple lightning, sizzling out of the sunlit air. Louise gave one sharp gasp, as if gathering her breath to cry out, and then crumpled to the grass and lay still.
"Just a warning, Admiral," Arroth said calmly, stepping into the line of Nelson's vision. He was a featureless shadow against the brightness of the sky, but there was no mistaking the voice. "No, don't bother calling your men: they won't come until I have finished my business with you."
"What have you done?" Nelson tried to sit up, but Arroth made an intricate gesture with one long-fingered hand, and he found he could not move. "If you've killed her . . ." The effort of struggling against the invisible bonds was draining his strength: after a few more moments he gave it up.
"Not this time," said Arroth. "The lady is only stunned: she will recover in a few hours. But understand this, Admiral: I cannot tolerate much more of your interference. We have been very patient, but that will not last for ever. It would be better for both of you if you accepted what is going to happen, while you still have the chance to be a part of it."
"No," Nelson said deliberately. "I have every intention of stopping what you are trying to do, whatever it takes."
"Whatever it takes?" Arroth glanced down at Louise. "We shall see, Admiral. Believe me, the annoyances you have suffered so far are only the beginning. If you have any feelings for this lady, I suggest you consider what could happen to her."
"You must be desperate, if you have to resort to threats like that."
"Desperate? Hardly, Admiral. Your resistance is quite futile, you know: with neither your ship nor the support of your superiors there is very little you can do -- and one woman with some faded remnants of ancestral memories will not be of much use to you." Arroth stepped back a little. "Remember, Admiral: I could very easily kill both of you here and now."
"I don't think so," Nelson said slowly. "Either you can't, or you don't want to. It would hardly suit your strategy at present, would it?"
"Strategies, Admiral, can be changed to suit events. You are even less reasonable than I expected: that may require some adjustment to our plans." Arroth raised his hand in a quick, releasing gesture: Nelson felt the bindings that held him slacken and fall away, but even as he began to struggle to his feet Arroth was gone, slipping out of sight among the corrugations of the hillside.
"What happened, sir? Are you all right?" The security guard, coming down the slope in dangerous haste, skidded to a halt beside the Admiral.
"I'm fine," Nelson snapped, looking up. He had been trying, without success, to rouse Louise. She was alarmingly pale and still, but her pulse was steady enough. "We had another visit from the man who isn't there. He shot Miss Delamere with some kind of beam: I think she's all right, but I want to get her to the hospital."
"Aye, sir." The guard bent down and lifted Louise in his arms, grunting a little: though slender, she was more substantial than the floating muslin of her frock made her appear. Her long braid flopped down over his arm. "Can you manage, sir?"
"Of course I can manage." Nelson picked up Louise's hat and scrambled to his feet, working his bad arm awkwardly back into the sling. "Just take care of the lady."
Half an hour later, while Louise lay unconscious a few doors away down the hospital corridor, Nelson found himself facing what seemed remarkably like an interrogation by a Detective Lieutenant Holman from the City Police.
"You say this Arrowsmith character had made threats before," Holman said, when Nelson had finished his account of the afternoon's events. "Why didn't you report the incidents at the time?" He was a stout man, with a straggling fringe of hair around a bald patch reddened by the heat. For the third time in ten minutes, he pulled out his pack of cigarettes, glanced at the No Smoking signs and thrust the box back in his pocket.
"I can't prove that anything happened," Nelson admitted. The ceiling fan had a worn bearing that thudded on every revolution, and his shoulder had begun to throb in sympathy. A trolley trundled past the half-open door, accompanied by hurrying feet and urgent voices. "It was before I came out of the hospital, and at the time I couldn't even convince my own security guards that anyone had been in the room. This man seems to have a remarkable ability to move about unnoticed."
"So, Admiral, when it comes right down to it, I only have your word for it that this attacker exists at all. You do realize that there's a much more likely explanation for the attack on Miss Delamere?"
Nelson gave the detective a direct look. "Really? And what might that be?"
Holman fished in his pocket again, brought out a pencil and began to chew on its end. "That you attacked her yourself."
It was almost too absurd to be taken seriously, but there was a horrible plausibility about it. "What possible reason would I have for hurting Miss Delamere?"
Holman shrugged. "You tell me, Admiral. An experiment, maybe -- or perhaps she found out too much and you had to keep her quiet."
Nelson refused to be drawn into pursuing that. "Don't you think, if I had anything to hide, I could come up with a more convincing story than a mysterious stranger no-one else -- apart from Miss Delamere, of course -- has ever seen?"
"You could have a point there." Holman conceded. "Maybe we'll pay him a visit."
"I think that would be wise. I can give you the address where he's staying, and you may find it illuminating to do a little checking into his background. You might start by asking for some identification documents."
"You mean this invisible man may be living under a phoney name?"
"I'm sure of it -- and almost as sure that the name isn't the only phoney thing about him."
"Admiral, are you suggesting this man may be an illegal alien?"
"In a sense, yes."
"Very well, Admiral," Holman said, after a few more questions. "If Miss Delamere's story matches yours, we'll look into the matter -- but I have to warn you, it will look bad for you if this turns out to be a wild-goose chase."
"Not a wild-goose chase," Nelson said wearily. "A chimera hunt, maybe. And now, Lieutenant, if you've no objection, I'd like to go to Miss Delamere."
She heard the voices first, distorted beyond recognition, echoing, approaching and receding as though her ears were full of water. After a while, when her hearing settled to something like normality, she ventured to open her eyes, only to close them hastily against the bewildering dazzle of colours and images.
"Louise?" That was definitely the Admiral's voice, though it sounded oddly hoarse and shaky. "Can you hear me?"
"Harry." She sorted through a collection of sensations that still did not seem entirely to belong to her, found a hand clasping hers, and squeezed it gently. "What . . . happened?"
"Arroth," he said grimly. "Some kind of stunning beam."
"Don't try to talk just yet, Miss Delamere. You'll feel better in a little while." That was Dr. Belling.
Louise could make no sense of the doctor's presence, but his advice seemed sound enough. She lay still for a minute or two, struggling to reassemble herself. There was a stinging sensation in her arm -- the aftermath of an injection, she realized presently. It seemed to be working: gradually, her mind and senses were beginning to function almost normally again. She opened her eyes, rather cautiously at first, and found that, though everything was still bright and blurred, with odd, rainbowed shadow-images as if she was looking through some kind of prismatic filter, she could see enough to make a guess at where she was. There were walls, covered in pale, institutional paint, and curtains of a familiar, institutionally cheerful, pattern, and gleaming steel and chromium. Turning her head a little, she saw the Admiral sitting beside her.
"Don't look so worried." She sat up, a little too quickly, and he put out his arm to steady her. She felt weak and giddy, but she had sometimes felt far worse after a close encounter with her buried memories. "I'm all right now."
"You've been unconscious for nearly three hours," he said. "He could have killed you."
"He could just as easily have killed both of us," Louise pointed out, "but he didn't, and there's no real harm done." She looked at him, trying to make sense of his expression through the fading distortion of her vision. There was pain there, and weariness, and a worry so deep, even now, that she could almost have called it fear. "What did he do to you?"
"Just the usual threats -- a warning, he said. Louise, I'm sorry. I should never have gotten you into this."
"Harry," Louise said gently, "you didn't get me into this: I was born into it. Arroth would have found me anyway, sooner or later."
"Not if we hadn't woken him up in the first place," Nelson said, not much comforted.
"That was hardly your fault -- and it certainly doesn't make you responsible for his actions." She leaned back on the pillows, as much to relieve him of the strain of supporting her as because her head was still swimming. "What do you want to do now?" she asked after a moment.
"A Detective Lieutenant from the City Police wants to talk to you, if you feel up to it."
"The Police? Yes, I suppose . . . they would." Louise glanced down at herself, belatedly wondering if she was decent. Her dress did not seem to have suffered any damage that a few minutes' ironing would not cure.
"I know they're not likely to catch Arroth," Nelson said, "but there's no point trying to keep this quiet. The Press are camped three deep in the foyer, anyway. I must say I'm getting a little tired of living in a goldfish bowl."
"You've spoken to this . . . detective . . . yourself?" Louise was trying to smooth the worst creases out of her dress.
"When he first got here -- but he needs your statement too."
"It won't help much," Louise pointed out. "I never saw a thing, but of course I'll give a statement." She made some attempt to smooth the errant tendrils of hair around her face: she knew she did not look her best, but this was no time for vanity.
"I think Arroth may have slipped up this time," Nelson said suddenly. "He actually left us with some proof that he exists. Right, Doctor?"
"Well, certainly something happened to Miss Delamere -- something I've never seen before. I can't believe you'd harm her yourself, Admiral -- but that's probably what at least half the world is going to believe."
"It won't do any harm to have the Police making a few enquiries about our Mr. Arrowsmith," Nelson said. "It should give him something to think about, at the very least."
"Miss Delamere," the detective said, once he had taken Louise's statement, "I have to tell you that Admiral Nelson claims your attacker was a man who calls himself Arrowsmith. Do you think that's likely?"
"More than likely," Louise said at once. "I've met this man, and I know how dangerous he is."
"Miss Delamere," Holman said, with a clumsy attempt at gentleness, "I don't doubt your word -- but we have no proof that the man you met is the same person that the Admiral claims has been threatening him. You're quite sure it couldn't have been Admiral Nelson who attacked you?"
"Of course I'm sure. Why would he do a thing like that?"
"We have to look at this from all sides, Miss. You say you didn't see anyone -- so how do you know it wasn't the Admiral?"
"You can't be serious. I know he wouldn't . . ." Unable to lie back and listen to such accusations, Louise took a deep breath and sat up straight.
"Try to think about it, Miss Delamere. What's the last thing -- the very last thing -- you remember?"
Louise closed her eyes, taking her thoughts back to that peaceful hillside. "We were just talking . . . and Harry -- the Admiral -- had said something about the view, I think, and I was looking out to sea." She could not help wishing she was still there. "Then . . . the next thing I knew, I was waking up here."
"So you weren't looking at him at the moment of the attack?"
"No -- I guess not."
"Can you show me where you were in relation to each other?"
"I really don't see what difference . . ." Louise caught herself, knowing she sounded like her mother. "If it helps, I was sitting by the basket, and he'd be -- oh, about where that trolley is."
"Sitting, or standing?"
"Thank you, Miss. I don't think we need to trouble you any further just now. But if you'll take my advice, Miss, you'll be careful around Admiral Nelson in future."
"Thank you for your concern, Lieutenant, but I think I'd rather make my own decisions about that."
The Admiral, with Dr. Belling close behind, returned as soon as the detective had left the room. For a moment, Louise thought he looked uncertain of his welcome.
"What next?" she asked.
"Would it bother you to walk past a few camera-men on the way out? If they want the story, I think we should let them have it -- and we'll see how Arroth likes that."
"Why not?" Louise smiled up at him. "I'm ready when you are. Doctor, thanks for your help."
"It wasn't much," Dr. Belling admitted. "You'll be all right now -- but you'd better not try to do anything too strenuous for a few hours."
The hospital foyer was full of camera crews and reporters with microphones and notebooks: arm and arm, Louise and the Admiral walked into a barrage of flash bulbs and questions.
"Miss Delamere, can you tell us what happened? Did you see the man who attacked you?"
"Admiral Nelson, how do you explain the fact that the attacker went for Miss Delamere and not for you?"
"Louise, honey, can you turn this way for the cameras?"
"Admiral, would you mind telling us why you were alone with Miss Delamere in such a remote spot?"
"That's enough!" Nelson shouted above the clamour, producing instant silence. "That's better. Now, if you'll have the courtesy to listen, I'll tell you what happened."
Somewhat abashed, the assembled reporters fell back, leaving a clear space around their quarry. Someone found a chair for Louise, thereby earning a look of real gratitude for himself and a very good picture for his cameraman.
"Miss Delamere and I were enjoying a quiet picnic," the Admiral began. He let his hand rest protectively on Louise's shoulder as he spoke, and her own hand came up to clasp it. "The attacker was known to us both: he has been pestering me repeatedly over the last few months, and the matter is now in the hands of the police. Miss Delamere was struck down by an electromagnetic stunning beam before either of us had realized what was happening: the attacker stayed for a minute or two to repeat some threats he has made before, and then made good his escape. This is a dangerous man, and I intend to see that a stop is put to his activities. Fortunately, as you can see, Miss Delamere was not seriously harmed, though she was rendered unconscious for some time. And now, ladies and gentlemen, if you will kindly allow us a little privacy to get on with our lives . . ."
Louise, recognizing her cue, rose from her seat. The crowd parted, leaving them a clear path to the exit, where one of the Admiral's security guards was waiting to hand them into the car.
"That was magnificent," she said, as the car swung out of the hospital gates past the last outposts of the media encampment. "I don't know what they'll make of it, but you were wonderful."
The Admiral gave her a thoughtful look, as if measuring her fitness for duty. "It does create another small problem," he said. "We haven't been able to contact your parents yet."
"Oh," Louise responded. "I see what you mean: Mother isn't going to take too kindly to finding out about this from the television news, but I'm afraid there isn't much we can do about it. They're probably shopping downtown, and they won't be back until dinner-time. I'll try to get in touch, but I don't think I can catch them in time. Oh, well. I suppose it can't be helped."
The apartment had been closed up for most of the day, and the warmth was stifling. After flinging open the windows of the sitting room and turning on the fans, Louise went straight to the refrigerator.
"Iced tea?" she suggested, lifting out a glass pitcher. "Or I could make iced coffee, if you like."
"Iced tea will be fine," Nelson said hastily. Louise's iced coffee, made to a recipe she had acquired on her travels, was a treat worth waiting for, but he did not want to put her to any trouble.
"No, I'll get the glasses," she said, intercepting him as he moved towards the cupboard. "Go and sit down: I'll be with you in a moment."
Nelson went back into the sitting room and sank down on an armchair. He was very tired, and the perpetual nagging ache of his injured shoulder, made worse by the awkward way he had shoved his arm into the sling, was growing hard to bear: he had never been more grateful for her unfussy kindness.
"There." Louise, coming in a minute or so later, set down her tray with a chime of ice on glass. "Now, let me fix that sling." Her hands were gentle and sure as she unpicked the knots: in a very short time she had everything back as it should be. "I'm surprised Dr. Belling didn't have this seen to," she commented. Then, seeing his slightly embarrassed expression, she realized that any such attempt on the doctor's part would not have been well received. Her laughter was soft and fond. "Is that more comfortable?"
"Much, thanks -- but you should be resting, not looking after me."
"Why? I had the easy part, after all: I didn't even know what was happening until it was nearly over." Louise rose, picking up her glass. "You take it easy for a while: I'm going to change."
As soon as he was alone, Nelson reached into a pocket and brought out the antique snuff-box he used to carry his pain-killing pills. He tried to use them as little as possible: most of the time, the slight fuzziness they induced was a worse hindrance than the pain itself. At present, however, the balance was decidedly the other way. He swallowed two of the pills, and then sat sipping the remainder of his drink and looking around the room. It was very much Louise's place, with no sign that she had ever needed to consult any taste but her own. Everything was neat and comfortable, furnished in light, neutral colours that made the most of the limited space. There were several hundred books, arranged according to their library classifications: above and between the banks of shelves the walls blossomed with prints and curios. A book of Chinese poetry lay open on the coffee-table, with several loose leaves of translation, pencilled in Louise's clear Italic script, tucked inside the cover. He was still examining this when Louise returned.
"I didn't know you read Chinese as well," he greeted her, laying the book down.
"Only a little," she admitted. "It's very . . . different." She had changed the crumpled muslin dress for one of crisp, deep-green cotton: her hair hung loose and darkly shining down her back. "Do you mind if I fix my hair while we talk?"
"It looks fine the way it is." He had never seen it loose before: the length of it was astonishing.
She smiled, tilting her head so that the dark waves shimmered in the sunlight. "It isn't very practical." She perched herself on an upright chair and began separating the strands ready for braiding. "What was it you wanted to talk about?"
"Louise," Nelson began, and stopped. There was no easy way to say this, but it had to be said, though he would have much preferred to listen to her talking about comparative linguistics or the practicalities of managing that amazing quantity of hair. He took a deep breath and started again. "Louise, I think it might be better if you went away for a while -- until all this is over with. It's too dangerous for you."
Her busy hands stopped suddenly, part-way down the first braid: for a moment she seemed to be frozen in shock, and he knew he had hurt her, which was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. "No, Harry," she said quietly. "You can't do that. You can't send me away now: this is as much my fight as yours, and you need my help."
"I need to know that you're safe," he retorted. "I'd miss you, but I'd be easier in my mind knowing that Arroth couldn't reach you. It seems I can't protect you even when you're right beside me, but perhaps if you go far enough away -- to Europe, maybe -- Arroth will leave you alone."
"Maybe," Louise said dully. "For just as long as it takes him to kill you and do whatever it is he's planning." She swallowed hard, realizing what she was implying. "I'm sorry, Admiral. I don't mean that you couldn't take on Arroth single handed if you had to -- but you don't have to. You should know better than anyone that there are some risks that are necessary and some that are just . . ." She stumbled to a halt.
"Plain stupid," Nelson finished for her. "Yes, I know." Unable to sit still any longer, he pushed himself up and began to pace around the room, which afforded rather less scope for such activity than his cabin aboard the Seaview. "The question is, which are which?" This was even more difficult than he had expected, and he knew he was handling it badly. "You know that detective thinks I tried to kill you?"
"We both know that isn't true."
"Of course it isn't true. But if any harm came to you because of me . . . Louise, I love you! I don't think I could bear to lose you!"
The words made a silence around themselves. Then Louise rose to her feet, hairpins cascading out of her lap. "Do you mean that?"
"Yes, I mean it. I've been in love from the first moment I saw you."
"Then listen to me for a moment, will you?" Her fingers ripped through the half-done braid, reducing it to loose tresses again. She tossed the dark mane back over her shoulder, out of the way.
"All right." Nelson subsided into a corner of the sofa. "I'm listening."
"This is too important to let our feelings get in the way. If you send me away, you'll be doing exactly what Arroth wants, and we can't afford that. The whole world may be in danger: you really do need my help -- and not just here. However much I can tell you, there's always going to be something I won't remember, or you won't know you need to ask, until we run into it." She took a deep breath. "You have to let me come along all the way -- all the way to the Lost City."
"I can't let you take that risk." There was an awful logic to her argument -- a logic he did not want to face.
"If you won't take me, I'll find a way to get there under my own steam."
He stared at her. She was so beautiful and so valiant, facing him down with the tears sparkling in her glorious eyes, that he could not imagine how he had ever wanted to be parted from her. "I'm sorry," he said. "I had to give you the chance to pull out, but . . . I'm very glad you didn't take it. It's an honour to serve beside you, ma'am."
She regarded him for a moment, as solemnly radiant as a bride. Then her expression broke up into a smile. "Oh, Harry," she said, and her voice trembled for the first time. "You do say the nicest things." She came to sit beside him, slipping her hand in his. "Anyway," she added after a moment, "I love you too much. I couldn't go away and leave you to face Arroth on your own."
"You, too?" It was almost more than he had dared to hope for.
"Yes. It took some getting used to, but . . . yes. No matter what happens."
He raised their joined hands to his lips and kissed her knuckles. "No matter what."
There was a long, contented pause. Louise relaxed in her seat, leaning against Nelson's sound shoulder. Her hair smelt of the sun-warmed hillside.
"If I wasn't half asleep," Nelson said at length, "I'd ask you to marry me."
"If you weren't half asleep, I'd probably say yes," Louise responded. "But maybe it's just as well. You know what my mother's like: if she found out, we'd never get a moment's peace."
"I suppose you're right. When all this is over . . ." He was asleep before he could finish the sentence.
To Chapter 7
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