Alek had slowly come to understand everything his men had given up for him: their ranks, families, and futures. If they were caught, the other four would hang as deserters. Prince Aleksandar himself would disappear more quietly, of course, for the good of the empire. The last thing a nation at war needed was uncertainty about who was heir to the throne.

He eased the Stormwalker toward the barn's open doors, using the shuffling step that Klopp had taught him. It erased the machine's massive footprints, along with any other signs that someone had hidden here.

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"Ready for your first run, young master?" Klopp asked.

Alek nodded, flexing his fingers. He was nervous, but glad to be piloting in daylight for once, instead of the dead of night.

And really, walker falls weren't so bad. They'd all be bruised and battered, but Master Klopp could get the machine back on its feet again.

As the engines pulsed faster, the smell of their exhaust mixed with dust and hay. Alek eased the machine forward, wood creaking as the walker pushed through the doors and out into the fresh air.

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"Smoothly done, young master!" Klopp said.

There was no time to answer. They were in the open now. Alek brought the Stormwalker to its full height, its engines cycling to their maximum. He urged it forward, stretching the metal legs farther with every step. Then came the moment when walking turned to running: both feet in the air at once, the cabin shuddering with every impact against the ground.

Alek heard rye being shredded underfoot. The Storm-walker's trail would be easy to spot from an aeroplane, but by night the harvesting combine would turn back and erase the huge footprints.

He kept his eyes on the goal, a streambed covered with sheltering trees.

This was the fastest he had ever traveled, faster than any horse, even faster than the express train to Berlin. Each ten-meter stride seemed to stretch out over endless seconds, graceful in the vast scale of the machine. The thundering pace felt glorious after long nights spent creeping through the forest.

But as the streambed approached, Alek wondered if the walker was moving too fast. How was he supposed to bring them to a halt?

He eased back on the saunters a bit - and suddenly everything went wrong. The right foot planted too soon ... and the machine began to tip forward.

Alek brought the left leg down, but the walker's momentum carried it forward. He was forced to take another step, like a careening drunk, unable to stop.

"Young master - ," Otto began.

"Take it!" Alek shouted.

Klopp seized the saunters and twisted the walker, stretching one leg out, tipping the whole craft back. The pilot's chair spun, and Volger swung wildly from the hand straps overhead, but somehow Klopp stayed glued to the controls.

The Stormwalker skidded onward, one leg outstretched, its front foot ripping through soil and stalks of rye. Dust spilled into the cabin, and Alek glimpsed the streambed hurtling toward them.

Gradually the machine slowed, a last bit of momentum lifting it upright ... and then it was standing on two legs, hidden among the trees, its huge feet soaking in the stream.

Alek watched dust and torn rye swirl across the viewport. A moment later his hands began to shake.

"Well done, young master!" Klopp said, clapping him on the back.

"But I almost fell!"

"Of course you did!" Klopp laughed. "Everyone falls the first time they try to run."

"Everyone what?"

"Everyone falls. But you did the right thing and let me take the controls in time."

Volger flicked sprigs of rye from his jacket. "It seems that humility was the rather tiresome point of today's lesson. Along with making sure we look like proper commoners."

"Humility?" Alek bunched his fists. "You mean you knew I would fall?"

"Of course," Klopp said. "As I said, everyone does at first. But you gave up the saunters in time. That's a lesson too!"

Alek scowled. Klopp was positively beaming at him, as if Alek had just mastered a somersault in a six-legged cutter. He wasn't sure whether to laugh or give the man a good thrashing.

He settled for coughing some of the dust out of his lungs, then taking back the controls. The Stormwalker responded normally. It seemed nothing more important than his pride had been damaged.

"You did better than I expected," Klopp said. "Especially with how top-heavy we are."

"Top-heavy?" Alek asked.

"Ah, well." Klopp looked at Volger sheepishly. "I suppose not really."

Count Volger sighed. "Go ahead, Klopp. If we're going to be teaching His Highness walker acrobatics, I suppose it might help to show him the extra cargo."

Klopp nodded, a wicked smile on his face. He pulled himself from the commander's seat and knelt by a small engineering panel in the floor. "Give me a hand, young master?"

A little curious now, Alek knelt beside him, and together they loosened the hand screws. The panel popped up, and Alek blinked - instead of wires and gears, the opening revealed neat rectangles of dully shining metal, each monogrammed with the Hapsburg seal.

"Are those ... ?"

"Gold bars," Klopp said happily. "A dozen of them. Almost a quart of a ton in all!"

"God's wounds," Alek breathed.

"The contents of your father's personal safe," Count Volger said. "Entrusted to us as part of your inheritance. We won't lack for money."

"I suppose not." Alek sat back. "So this is your little secret, Count? I must admit I'm impressed."

"This is merely an afterthought." Volger waved a hand, and Klopp began to seal the panel back up. "The real secret is in Switzerland."

"A quarter ton of gold, an afterthought?" Alek looked up at the man. "Are you serious?"

Count Volger raised an eyebrow. "I am always serious. Shall we go?"

Alek pulled himself back up into the pilot's chair, wondering what other surprises the wildcount had waiting.

Alek started them down the streambed toward Lienz, the nearest city with any mechanikal industry. The walker desperately needed kerosene and parts, and with a dozen gold bars, they could buy the whole town if need be. The trick was not giving themselves away. A Cyklop Storm-walker was a fairly conspicuous way to travel.

Alek kept the machine in the trees along the stream bank. With the afternoon light already fading, they could steal close enough to reach the city on foot tomorrow.

It was strange to think that in the morning, for the first time in two weeks, Alek would see other people. Not just these four men but an entire town of commoners, none of whom would realize that a prince was walking among them.

He coughed again, and looked down at his dusty disguise of farmer's clothes. Volger had been right - he was as filthy as a peasant now. No one would think he was anything special. Certainly not a boy with a vast fortune in gold.

Klopp beside him was equally grubby, but still wore a pleased smile on his face.

ELEVEN

Even though Mr. Rigby had said not to, Deryn Sharp looked down.

A thousand feet below, the sea was in motion. Huge waves rolled across the surface, the wind tearing white moonlit spray from their peaks. And yet up here, clinging to the Leviathan's flank in the dark, the wind was still. Just like in the airflow diagrams, a layer of calm wrapped around the huge beastie.

Calm or not, Deryn's fingers clutched the rigging tighter as she gazed at the sea. It looked cold and wet down there. And, as Mr. Rigby had pointed out many times over the last fortnight, the water's surface was as hard as stone if you were falling fast enough.

Tiny cilia pulsed and rippled through the ropes, tickling her fingers. Deryn slipped one hand free and pressed her palm against the beast's warmth. The membrane felt taut and healthy, with no whiff of hydrogen leaking out.

"Taking a rest, Mr. Sharp?" called Rigby. "We're only halfway up."

"Just listening, sir," she answered. The older officers said the hum of the membrane could tell you everything about an airship. The Leviathan's skin vibrated with the thrumming of the engines, the shufflings of ballast lizards inside, even the voices of the crew around her.

"Dawdling, you mean," the bosun shouted. "This is a combat drill! Get climbing, Mr. Sharp!"

"Yes, sir!" she replied, though there wasn't much point in rushing. The other five middies were still behind her. They were the ones dawdling, pausing to clip their safety harnesses to the ratlines every few feet. Deryn climbed free, like the older riggers, except when she was swinging from the airbeast's underside -

Ventral side, she corrected herself - the opposite of dorsal. The Air Service hated regular English. Walls were "bulkheads," the dining room was a "mess," and climbing ropes were "ratlines." The Service even had different words for "left" and "right," which seemed to be going a bit far.

Deryn hooked the heel of her boot into the ratlines and pushed herself up again, the feed bag heavy across her shoulder, sweat running down her back. Her arms weren't as strong as the other middies', but she'd learned to climb with her legs. And maybe she had been resting, just a squick.

A message lizard scampered past her, its sucker-feet tugging at the membrane like fingers caught in taffy. It didn't stop to squawk orders at the lowly midshipmen, but flitted past on its way up to the spine. The whole ship was on combat alert, the ratlines swaying with scuttling crew, the night air full of fabricated birds.

In the distance Deryn could make out lights against the dark sea. The H.M.S. Gorgon was a Royal Navy ship, a kraken tender that had tonight's practice target in tow.

Mr. Rigby must have seen it too, because he shouted, "Keep moving, you sods! The bats are waiting for their breakfast!"

Deryn gritted her teeth, reached for the next rope -  that's a ratline, you sod! - and pulled as hard as she could.

The middy's test, of course, had been easy.

Service regulations said the test was supposed to be taken on the ground, but Deryn had begged shamelessly, in order to become a temporary middy on the ship. Her third day aboard the Leviathan, the ship's officers had relented. With the towers of Paris drifting past the windows, she'd blazed through a few sextant readings, a dozen strings of signal flags to decode, and map reading exercises that Da had taught her ages ago. Even the sour-faced bosun, Mr. Rigby, had shown a glimmer of admiration.

Since the test, though, Deryn's smugness had faded a bit. It turned out she didn't know everything about airships. Not yet, anyway.

Every day the bosun called the Leviathan's young middies to the ship's wardroom for a lecture. Mostly it was airmanship: navigation, fuel consumption, weather predicting, and endless knots and command whistle tunes to learn. They'd sketched the airship's anatomy so often that Deryn knew its innards as well as she knew the streets of Glasgow. On lucky days it was military history: the battles of Nelson, the theories of Fisher, the tactics of airbeast against surface ships and land forces. Some days they played out tabletop battles against the lifeless zeppelins and aeroplanes of the kaiser.

But Deryn's favorite lectures were when the boffins explained natural philosophy. How old Darwin had figured out how to weave new species from the old, pulling out the tiny threads of life and tangling them together under a microscope. How evolution had squeezed a copy of Deryn's own life chain into every cell of her body. How umpteen different beasties made up the Leviathan - from the microscopic hydrogen-farting bacteria in its belly to the great harnessed whale. How the airship's creatures, like the rest of Nature, were always struggling among themselves in messy, snarling equilibrium.

The bosun's lectures were merely a fraction of what she had to cram into her attic. Every time another airship flew past, the middies scrambled to the signals deck to read the messages strung on distant fluttering flags. Six words a minute without error, or you were in for long hours of duty in the gastric regions. Every hour they ran drills to check the Leviathan's altitude, firing an air gun and timing the echo from the sea, or dropping a glowing bottle of phosphorescent algae and timing how long till it shattered. Deryn had learned to reckon in a squick how many seconds an object took to plummet any distance from a hundred feet to two miles.

But the strangest thing was doing it all as a boy.

Jaspert had been right: Her diddies weren't the tricky part. Water was heavy, so bathing on an airship was done quick with rags and a pail. And the toilets aboard the Leviathan ("heads" in Service-speak) were in the dark gastric channel, which carried off clart to turn it into ballast and hydrogen. So hiding her body was easy... . It was her brain she'd had to shift.

Deryn had always reckoned herself a tomboy, between Jaspert's bullying and Da's balloon training. But running with the other middies was more than just punch-ups and tying knots - it was like joining a pack of dogs. They jostled and banged for the best seats at the middies' mess table. They taunted each other over signal reading and navigation scores, and whom the officers had complimented that day. They endlessly competed to see who could spit farther, drink rum faster, or belch the loudest.

It was bloody exhausting, being a boy.

Not that all of it was bad. Her airman's uniform was miles better than any girl's clothes. The boots clomped gloriously as she stormed to signals practice or firefighting drills, and the jacket had a dozen pockets, including special compartments for her command whistle and rigging knife. And Deryn didn't mind the constant practice in useful skills like knife throwing, swearing, and not showing pain when punched.

But how did boys keep this up their whole barking lives?

Deryn eased the feed bag from her sore shoulders. For once she'd reached the airship's spine ahead of the others, and could take a moment's rest.

"Dawdling again, Mr. Sharp?" a voice called.

Deryn turned to see Midshipman Newkirk climbing into view over the curve of the Leviathan, his rubber-soled shoes squeaking. There were no waving cilia up here, just hard dorsal scales for mounting winches and guns.

She called back, "Just waiting for you to catch up, Mr. Newkirk."

It always felt odd calling the other boys "mister." Newkirk still had plooks on his face and hardly knew how to tie his necktie. But middies were supposed to put on airs like proper officers.

When he reached the spine, Newkirk dropped his feed bag and grinned. "Mr. Rigby's still miles back."

"Aye," Deryn said. "He can't call us dawdlers now."

They stood there for a moment, panting and taking in the view.

The topside of the airbeast was alive with activity. The ratlines flickered with electric torches and glowworms, and Deryn felt the membrane tremble from distant footsteps. She closed her eyes, trying to feel the airship's totality, its hundred species tangling to make one vast organism.

"Barking brilliant up here," Newkirk murmured.

Deryn nodded. These last two weeks she'd volunteered for open-air duty whenever possible. Being dorsal was real flying - the wind in her face, and sky in all directions - as prized as her hours up in Da's balloons.

A squad of duty riggers rushed by, two hydrogen sniffers straining on their leashes as they searched for leaks in the membrane. One snuffled Newkirk's hand as it passed, and he let out a squeak.

The riggers laughed, and Deryn joined in.

"Shall I call a medic, Mr. Newkirk?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he snapped, staring at his hand suspiciously. Newkirk's mum was a Monkey Luddite, and he'd inherited a nervous stomach for fabrications. Why he'd volunteered to serve on a mad bestiary like the Leviathan was a flat-out mystery. "I just don't like those six-legged beasties."

"They're nothing to be scared of, Mr. Newkirk."

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