A few of the commandoes turned and saw the walker coming at them, and Deryn wondered if she should drop down to fire her murderous weapon again. But then the Stormwalker shook beneath her. A cloud of smoke spewed from its belly, billowing over Deryn and filling her mouth with an acrid taste.

Her eyes stung, but she forced them open as the shell hit. It exploded among the commandoes, throwing men in all directions.

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"Barking spiders," she murmured.

When the smoke and snow flurries subsided, nothing moved except a few strafing hawks flapping back toward the Leviathan. Deryn glanced back at the field gun. The remaining crew were running away, a Kondor coming down to skim them from the ice.

The Clankers were in retreat!

But where was that other zeppelin?

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She scanned the horizon - nothing. Then a shadow flickered on the snow, due west, and Deryn looked straight up. The airship was directly overhead, its bomb racks bristling. A cloud of fl¨¦chette bats swirled farther up, and she saw a concussion shell arcing its way from the Leviathan, its big harmless boom about to scare the clart right out of them.

She grabbed the hatch handle and dropped, pulling it shut behind her.

"Bombs coming!" she cried. "And barking fl¨¦chettes as well!"

"Vision to quarter," Alek said calmly, and Klopp started turning a crank over at his side of the cabin. Deryn saw an identical one beside her, and wondered which way it was meant to go.

As her hand reached out for it, the world exploded... .

A blinding flash lit the cabin, followed by a peal of thunder that threw Deryn off her feet again. The floor was tipping, everything sliding to starboard. The shriek of gears and Tazza howling filtered into her half-deafened ears, and her shoulder struck metal as the whole cabin lurched once - hard.

Then an avalanche of snow was pouring in through the viewport, a rush of cold and sudden silence burying her ...

THIRTY-THREE

Alek tried to move, but his arms were pinned, wrapped in a freezing embrace of snow.

He struggled for a moment, then realized he was still strapped into the pilot's seat. As he opened the buckles and slipped from the chair, the world seemed to reorient itself.

The viewport was sideways, like the vertical slit of a cat's eye.

Now that he thought of it, the whole cabin was sideways. The starboard wall was now the floor, and the hand straps all hung helter-skelter.

Alek blinked, unable to believe it. He'd wrecked the walker.

The cabin was dark - the lights had failed - and strangely silent. The engines must have shut down automatically in the fall. Alek heard breathing beside him.

"Klopp," he said, "are you all right?"

"I think so, but something's ..." The man lifted one arm. Tazza crawled out from beneath it with a plaintive whine, then shook himself, spraying snow across the cabin.

"Do stop that, Tazza," Dr. Barlow's voice came from the darkness.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" Alek asked.

"I am, but Mr. Sharp appears to be hurt."

Alek crawled closer. Dylan lay with his head in Dr. Barlow's lap, his eyes closed. A fresh cut stretched across his forehead, blood running into his black eye from the crash. His thin features were pale behind the bruising.

Alek swallowed. This was his fault - he'd been at the controls.

"Help me find some bandages, Klopp."

Shoveling snow aside, they managed to get the storage locker open. Klopp pulled out two first-aid kits and handed one to Alek.

"I'll see to Mr. Sharp," Dr. Barlow said, taking the kit from him. "I'm not as hopeless a nurse as I pretend."

Alek nodded and turned to help Klopp with the belly hatch, which was now in the wall of the upended cabin. The mechanism resisted for a moment, then opened with an angry metal screech.

Hoffman, strapped sideways into the gunner's chair, called out that he and Bauer were bumped and bruised, but whole. Alek breathed a sigh of relief. At least he hadn't killed anyone.

He turned to Klopp. "I'm sorry I fell."

The man let out a snort. "Took you long enough, young master. Now we can finally call you a proper pilot."

"What?"

"You think I've never wrecked a walker?" Klopp laughed. "It's all part of learning the craft, young master."

Alek blinked, not sure if the man was kidding.

A metal plink rang through the cabin. Klopp looked up as another, then more, followed, like a hailstorm slowly building.

"Fl¨¦chettes," Dr. Barlow said.

"Let's hope they get those zeppelins," Klopp said softly. "Otherwise Count Volger will be very unhappy with us."

"I'll take a look outside," Alek said. "We might be able to stand up and rejoin the fight."

Klopp shook his head. "Not likely, young master. Stay here till the battle's over."

"That sounds like wise advise," Dr. Barlow said in German.

But the rain of fl¨¦chettes was tapering off, and Alek heard the sound of airship engines close by.

"I have to see what's going on," he said. "We've still got a working machine gun!"

"STANDING FIRM."

Klopp tried to argue, but Alek ignored him, shoveling a few handfuls of snow aside and shimmying out the viewport.

The sunlit snow was blinding for a moment, except for the dark crater left by the zeppelin's aerial bomb. Almost a direct hit. The Stormwalker's trail of footprints went straight into the blackened hole, then zigzagged to where the machine lay in a crumpled heap.

Alek flexed his hands, remembering his struggle to keep the walker upright. He'd almost done it. But almost meant nothing now. The engine casing was cracked; hot oil steamed out onto the snow. One giant metal leg was twisted wrong. The machine couldn't possibly stand again.

He tore his eyes away, scanning the sky. The Kondor that had bombed them was barely a hundred meters away. It was flying just above the snow, its gasbag fluttering, full of holes from the fl¨¦chette attack.

Shouts came from up on its topside. Two airmen had seen him, and were swinging a machine gun around.

Then Alek realized where he was standing - right in front of the walker's breastplate, the Hapsburg coat of arms proclaiming exactly who and what he was ...

An utter fool.

Before he could move, the Kondor's machine gun erupted. Bullets rang from the walker's steel hull and kicked up snow around his feet. Alek froze, waiting for hot metal to rip through his flesh.

But then the air began to crinkle around the zeppelin. The dazzling flash of the machine gun was spreading, shimmering down the airship's flanks. Too late, the German airmen realized what was happening. The gun fell silent.

But the flame was a living thing now, dancing in the hydrogen spilled from the torn skin. The Kondor dropped, its gondola thudding against the snow. The gasbag crumpled, squeezing more hydrogen from the holes, and a hundred fiery geysers erupted.

Alek squinted and covered his face. The whole airship glowed from within as it rose up, carried back into the sky by its own heat. The aluminum skeleton inside was melting. The Kondor twisted, then broke in the middle, a huge mushroom of fire bellowing from the split.

And then the two halves were swirling downward again.

They seemed to hit the ground gently, but the snow shrieked and hissed as melted metal and burning hydrogen turned it to steam. White clouds billowed around the two halves of wreckage, and Alek heard awful cries over the roar of flame.

"You Clankers really should use air guns."

Alek turned. "Dylan! Are you all right?"

"AS THE KONDOR BURNS."

"Aye, you know me," the boy said. His forehead was bandaged, his eyes bright as he watched the inferno. "A bit of smelling salts and I'm back on my feet." He smiled, then swayed a bit.

Alek put an arm around the boy's shoulders to steady him, but their eyes were drawn to the dying airship again.

"Horrible, isn't it?" Alek whispered.

"Too much like my nightmares." Dylan looked around. "Look, the other one's scampering."

Alek turned. The second zeppelin was in the distance, headed away. A few of the Leviathan's larger hawks were giving chase, harrying the crew on its back. But soon it had slipped over the mountains, making for the floating hangars on Lake Constance.

"We beat them," Dylan said with a weary smile.

"Maybe. But now they know where we are."

Alek looked at the Stormwalker again - broken and silent, except for a hiss where hot oil was leaking onto the snow. If Klopp couldn't fix it, the Germans would have two prizes waiting when they returned: the wounded Leviathan and the missing prince of Hohenberg.

"When they come back," he said, "they'll bring more than a pair of Kondors."

"Aye, maybe." Dylan clapped his shoulder. "But don't worry, Alek. We'll be ready for them."

"Perhaps the Darwinists can help us," Klopp said.

Alek looked up from the engine hatch, where he was passing tools to Hoffman. The transmission wasn't as bad as he'd expected. Every drop of oil was spilled, but none of the gears had cracked.

The real problem was standing up again. One of the walker's knees was twisted. It might have the strength to walk, but scrambling to its feet was a different matter.

Alek shook his head. "I doubt they have any creatures strong enough to lift a walker."

"They have one," Klopp said, gazing at the vast bulk of the airship. "When that godforsaken beast goes up, we can run cables to the Stormwalker. Like lifting a puppet on strings."

"A thirty-five-ton puppet?" Alek wished that Dr. Barlow were still here; she would know the Leviathan's lifting capacity. But she and Dylan had headed off to check her precious eggs.

"Why not?" Klopp said, looking back at the castle. "They've got all the food they could ask for."

Across the glacier the Stormwalker's abandoned cargo was swarming with birds. The Darwinists had sent a work party to chop open the boxes and barrels, and hungry flocks had soon descended.

The Leviathan's creatures seemed to know there was no time to lose.

"Young master?" Hoffman said quietly. "Here comes trouble."

Alek looked up and saw a figure in a fur coat coming across the snow. He felt his mouth go dry.

Count Volger wore a cold expression. One hand was clenched around the pommel of his sword.

"Do you know what you've done to us?" he said.

Alek's mouth opened, but nothing came out.

"It was my - ," Klopp started.

"Be silent." Volger held up a hand. "Yes, you should have knocked this young idiot on the head to keep him out of sight. But I want to hear his explanation, not yours."

"In point of fact they knocked me on the head," Klopp mumbled, heading off to help Bauer.

Alek drew himself up. "It was the right choice, Count. Shooting down both of those zeppelins was our only chance to stay hidden." He pointed at the charred remains across the snow. "We got one of them, after all."

"Yes, bravo," Volger said, acid in his voice. "I witnessed your brilliant strategy of standing in front of its guns."

Alek took a slow breath. "Count Volger, you will kindly keep a civil tone."

"You abandon your post, you ignore your own safety, and now this!" Volger pointed at the broken walker, his hand quivering with anger and disgust. "And you're telling me to be civil? Don't you realize that the Germans will be back soon, and you've left us with no way to escape!"

"It was a risk I was willing to take."

Volger's voice dropped. "It's one thing to risk yourself, Alek, but what about the lives of your men? What do you think will happen to them when the Germans come?"

Alek glanced at the spot where Klopp had been standing, but the other three men had found work for themselves out of sight.

"Klopp says we can repair the walker."

"I may be a cavalry officer, Alek, but I can see that this machine won't stand on its own."

"No. But the Darwinists can pull us upright, once they reinflate the airship."

"Forget your new friends," Volger said bitterly. "After this last attack their ship is beyond repair."

"But the zeppelins hardly touched it."

"Only because they wanted to capture the airbeast alive," Count Volger said. "So they focused their fire on the mechaniks. From what I've overheard, the engines are shot to pieces - impossible to fix."

Alek peered at the giant black shape splayed across the snow, the birds whirling overhead. "But they're reinflating the ship. They must be planning something."

"That's why I'm here," Volger said. "They're going up without engines, like a hot-air balloon. An east wind will carry them over France. It should work, as long as that wind arrives before the Germans do."

Alek looked at the Stormwalker, despairing. Maybe they could still pull the walker upright ... but the Leviathan would never have enough control to set the walker on its feet.

Volger took a step closer, the anger fading from his face. Suddenly he looked exhausted. "It's up to you to decide, Alek, if you want to surrender."

"Surrender?" Alek said. "But the Germans would hang me."

"No - to the Darwinists. Tell them who and what you are, and I'm sure they'll take you with them. You'll be a prisoner, but you'll be safe. Perhaps they'll win this war. And then, if you've been obedient, they might install you on the throne of Austria-Hungary, a friendly puppet emperor to keep the peace."

Alek took a step backward in the snow. Volger couldn't be saying this. It was one thing to stay hidden - no one expected a fifteen-year-old to fight on the front lines. But surrendering to the enemy?

He'd be remembered as a traitor for all time.

"There must be another choice."

"Of course. You can stay here and fight when the Germans come. And die with the rest of us."

Alek shook his head. It made no sense, Volger talking like this. The man always had a strategy, some plan to bend the world to his will. He couldn't be giving up.

"You needn't decide yet, Alek," Volger said. "We have a day or so before the Germans return. You might have a long life in front of you, if you surrender." He shrugged again. "But I'm done with giving you advice."

With that, the man turned and walked away.

THIRTY-FOUR

Alek took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

Dylan opened it, frowning when he saw Alek.

"You look barking awful."

"I've come to see Dr. Barlow," Alek said.

The young airman opened the door of the machine room wider. "She'll be back soon. But she's in a foul mood, I'm afraid."

"I know about your engine trouble," Alek said. He'd decided not to hide that Count Volger had been spying on them. For his plan to work he and the Darwinists had to trust each other.

Dylan pointed at the box of mysterious eggs. "Aye, and on top of the engines, that barking idiot Newkirk didn't keep these warm enough last night. But it's all my fault, of course, as far as the boffin is concerned."

Alek looked down at the box - only three eggs were left.

"That's too bad."

"The mission's stuffed anyway." Dylan pulled a thermometer from the box and checked it. "With no engines we'll be lucky to make it back to France."

"That's what I've come about," Alek said. "Our walker's also finished."

"Are you sure?" Dylan gestured at the drawers that filled the room. "We could give you any spare parts you need. They're useless to us."

"We need more than parts, I'm afraid," Alek said. "We can't stand the walker back upright."

"Barking machines!" Dylan exclaimed. "Didn't I tell you? I've never seen a beastie that couldn't get up on its own. Well, except a turtle. And one of my auntie's cats."

Alek raised an eyebrow. "And I'm sure your auntie's cat would have survived that aerial bomb."

"You'd be surprised. He's quite fat." Dylan's eyes lit up. "Why don't you come with us?"

"That's the problem," Alek said. "I don't think the others will, not if it means surrendering to the French. But if we could sneak away when you land, then maybe ..."

Maybe he could convince his men to save themselves. And perhaps he could salvage a little of Volger's respect.

Dylan was nodding. "We'll be crash-landing in some random spot, so I doubt there'll be an honor guard there to greet us. Mind you, it's a dodgy business, free-ballooning in a hydrogen breather. Anything could happen."

"What are your chances?"

"Not so bad." Dylan shrugged. "One time I flew a Huxley halfway across England - and all by myself!"

"Really?" Alek said. For a boy, Dylan seemed to have had the most extraordinary adventures. For a moment Alek wished he could forget his birthright and become just like him, a common soldier without land or title.

"It was my first day in the Service," Dylan began, "and an unexpected storm came up, one of the worst London's ever seen. Tore up whole buildings from the ground, including - "

The door suddenly flew open and Dr. Barlow swept in, wielding a map case and a furious expression.

"The captain is a fool," she announced. "This ship is full of idiots!"

Dylan saluted. "But the eggs are warm as toast, ma'am."

"Well, that's reassuring, though meaningless under the circumstances. Back to France he wants to go!" Dr. Barlow spun the map case in her hands, then looked up distractedly. "Ah, Alek. I hope your walking machine is in better shape than this benighted airship."

He bowed. "I'm afraid not, Doctor. Master Klopp doesn't think we can get it standing again."

"Is it as bad as that?"

"I'm afraid so. In fact, I'm here to ask if we can come with you." Alek looked at his boots. "If you can manage the weight of five extra men, we'd be in your debt."

Dr. Barlow tapped the map case against her palm. "Lift won't be a problem. We're exhausting our own food as well as yours, giving everything to the animals." She stared out the window. "And our crew is smaller than it once was."

Alek nodded. He'd seen the shrouded bodies outside, and the men laboring to bury them in the iron-hard ice beneath the snow.

"But France isn't neutral territory," she said. "You'll be taken prisoner."

"That's the favor I've come to ask." Alek took a deep breath. "You'll be coming down in some random spot, Dylan says. We could slip away the moment you land."

"And no one the wiser," Dylan added.

Dr. Barlow nodded slowly. "It might work. And we certainly owe you a debt, Alek. But I'm afraid it's not up to me."

"Are you saying the captain won't look the other way?" Alek said.

"The captain is an idiot," she repeated bitterly. "He refuses to complete our mission. He won't even try! If one can free-balloon to France, surely the Ottoman Empire is possible. It's simply a question of catching the right wind." She waved the map case. "The air currents of the Mediterranean are hardly a mystery!"

"Might be a bit tricky, ma'am," Dylan said, and cleared his throat. "And technically our destination is still a military secret."

Dr. Barlow glared at the eggs. "An utterly meaningless one, at this point."

Alek frowned, wondering why the Leviathan was headed to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were devoutly anti-Darwinist, thanks to their Muslim faith. They'd been enemies with Russia for centuries, and the sultan and the kaiser were old friends. Volger always said that sooner or later the Ottomans would join forces with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

"That's neutral territory, isn't it?" he said carefully.

"For the moment." Dr. Barlow sighed. "Of course that may change soon, which is why this delay is a disaster. Years of work, wasted."

Alek listened to her fume, puzzling over this new development. The Ottoman Empire was the perfect place to disappear. It was a vast and impoverished realm, where a few gold coins could go a long way. There were German agents in abundance there, but at least he wouldn't be taken prisoner the moment he arrived.

"If you don't mind telling me, Dr. Barlow, was your mission one of peace or war?"

She held his gaze a moment. "I can't babble all our secrets to you, Alek. But it should be obvious that I am a scientist, not a soldier."

"And a diplomat?"

Dr. Barlow smiled. "We all do our duty."

Alek glanced at the box again. What the eggs could have to do with diplomacy was beyond him. But what mattered was that Dr. Barlow would risk anything to get them to the Ottoman Empire... .

Which gave Alek a bold idea.

"What if I could give you engines, Dr. Barlow?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Pardon me?"

"The Stormwalker has two powerful engines," he said. "Both in good working order."

There was a moment of silence, and then Dr. Barlow turned to Dylan. "Is such a thing possible, Mr. Sharp?"

The boy looked dubious. "I'm sure they've got enough power, ma'am. But they're barking heavy! And that Clanker machinery is a fiddle. Making it work could take ages, and we're a bit pressed for time."

Alek shook his head. "Your crew wouldn't have to do much. Klopp is the best master of mechaniks in Austria, handpicked by my father. He and Hoffman kept that Stormwalker running for five weeks on a handful of parts. I would imagine they can get a pair of propellers spinning."

"Aye, maybe," Dylan said. "But there's a bit more to it than just spinning the props."

"Then your engineers can help us." Alek turned to Dr. Barlow. "What about it? Your mission can go forward, and my men and I can escape to a friendly power."

"But there is one problem," the woman said. "We'll be dependent on you."

Alek blinked - he hadn't thought of that. Control of the engines meant control of the airship.

"We could train your engineers as we go," he said. "Please believe me, I enter into this alliance in good faith."

"I trust you, Alek," she said. "But you're just a boy. How can I be sure your word holds with your men?"

"Because I'm ...," Alek started, then took a slow breath. "They'll do what I say. They traded a count for me, remember?"

"I remember," she said. "But if I'm going to bargain with you, Alek, I need to know who you really are."

"I ... I can't tell you that."

"Let me make this easy, then. The best master of mechaniks in all of Austria was part of your father's household?"

Alek nodded slowly.

"And you say you've been on the run for five weeks," she continued. "So your journey began roughly June twenty-eighth?"

Alek froze. Dr. Barlow had named the night that Volger and Klopp had come for him in his bedroom - the night his parents had died. She must have suspected already, after all the clues he'd let slip. And he'd just handed her the final pieces of the puzzle.

He tried to deny it, but suddenly he couldn't speak. Keeping his despair a secret had made it easier to control, but now the emptiness was rising up in him again.

Dr. Barlow reached out and took his hand. "I'm so sorry, Alek. That must have been awful. So the rumors are true? It was the Germans?"

He turned away, unable to face her pity. "They've hunted us since that first night."

"Then we shall have to get you away from here." She rose, gathering her traveling coat around her. "I shall explain to the captain."

"Please, ma'am," Alek said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "Don't tell anyone else who I am. It might complicate things."

Dr. Barlow looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "I suppose this can be our secret, for now. The captain will be happy enough with your offer of engines."

She opened the door, then turned back. Alek wished she would just leave. The emptiness was welling up now unstoppably, and he didn't want to cry in front of a woman.

But all she said was, "Take care of him, Mr. Sharp. I shall return."

THIRTY-FIVE

Alek's sadness had been obvious from the beginning, Deryn reckoned.

She'd seen it when he'd woken her up the night of the wreck, his dark green eyes full of sorrow and fear. And yesterday when he'd told her about being an orphan - she should have known from his silences how raw the heartache was.

But now it was all in the open, tears running down his face, his sobs heavy. Somehow, revealing himself had loosened Alek's mastery of his sadness.

"Poor boy," Deryn said softly, kneeling beside him. Alek was huddled against the cargo box, his face buried in his hands.

"I'm sorry," he snuffled, looking ashamed.

"Don't be daft." She sat beside him, the box warm at her back. "I went half mad when my da died. Didn't talk for a month."

Alek tried to say something, but failed. A hard swallow wracked his frame, as if his throat were glued shut.

"Shhh," Deryn said, and pushed a lock of hair from his face. His cheeks were wet with tears. "And don't worry, I won't tell anyone."

Not about his crying, nor who he really was. That was obvious now. She'd been a ninny not to see it before. Alek had to be the son of that duke fellow who'd started all this. Deryn remembered the day she'd come aboard the Leviathan, hearing how some aristocrat had got himself killed, riling up the Clankers.

All this bother over one barking duke, she'd thought so many times. Of course, it probably didn't seem that way to Alek. Having your parents die was exactly like the world exploding, like a war being declared.

Deryn remembered after Da's accident, her mother and the aunties trying to turn her back into a proper girl -  skirts, tea parties, all the rest. As if they wanted to erase the old Deryn and everything she'd been. She'd had to fight like mad to stay who she was.

That was the trick - to keep punching, no matter what.

"The boffin will get the captain on our side," Deryn said softly. "And then we'll be out of here in no time. You'll see."

Not that she was entirely sure that Alek's engine plan would work. But anything was better than sitting here hoping for a lucky breeze.

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