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Scott Westerfeld

BEHEMOTH

To Justine:

 nine years, seventeen novels, and counting

ONE

Alek raised his sword. “On guard, sir!”

Deryn hefted her own weapon, studying Alek’s pose. His feet were splayed at right angles, his left arm sticking out behind like the handle of a teacup. His fencing armor made him look like a walking quilt. Even with his sword pointed straight at her, he looked barking silly.

“Do I have to stand like that?” she asked.

“If you want to be a proper fencer, yes.”

“A proper idiot, more like,” Deryn muttered, wishing again that her first lesson were someplace less public. A dozen crewmen were watching, along with a pair of curious hydrogen sniffers. But Mr. Rigby, the bosun, had forbidden swordplay inside the airship.

She sighed, raised her saber, and tried to imitate Alek’s pose.

It was a fine day on the Leviathan’s topside, at least. The airship had left the Italian peninsula behind last night, and the flat sea stretched in all directions, the afternoon sun scattering diamonds across its surface. Seagulls wheeled overhead, carried by the cool ocean breeze.

Best of all, there were no officers up here to remind Deryn that she was on duty. Two German ironclad warships were rumored to be skulking nearby, and Deryn was meant to be watching for signals from Midshipman Newkirk, who was dangling from a Huxley ascender two thousand feet above them.

But she wasn’t really dawdling. Only two days before, Captain Hobbes had ordered her to keep an eye on Alek, to learn what she could. Surely a secret mission from the captain himself outweighed her normal duties.

Maybe it was daft that the officers still thought of Alek and his men as enemies, but at least it gave Deryn an excuse to spend time with him.

“Do I look like a ninny?” she asked Alek.

“You do indeed, Mr. Sharp.”

“Well, you do too, then! Whatever they call ninnies in Clanker-talk.”

“The word is ‘Dummkopf’” he said. “But I don’t look like one, because my stance isn’t dreadful.”

He lowered his saber and came closer, adjusting Deryn’s limbs as if she were a dummy in a shop window.

“More weight on your back foot,” he said, nudging her boots farther apart. “So you can push off when you attack.”

Alek was right behind her now, his body pressing close as he adjusted her sword arm. She hadn’t realized this fencing business would be so touchy.

He grasped her waist, sending a crackle across her skin.

If Alek moved his hands any higher, he might notice what was hidden beneath her careful tailoring.

“Always keep sideways to your opponent,” he said, gently turning her. “That way, your chest presents the smallest possible target.”

“Aye, the smallest possible target,” Deryn sighed. Her secret was safe, it seemed.

Alek stepped away and resumed his own pose, so that the tips of their swords almost touched. Deryn took a deep breath, ready to fight at last.

But Alek didn’t move. Long seconds passed, the airship’s new engines thrumming beneath their feet, the clouds slipping slowly past overhead.

“Are we going to fight?” Deryn finally asked. “Or just stare each other to death?”

“Before a fencer crosses swords, he has to learn this basic stance. But don’t worry”—Alek smiled cruelly —“we won’t be here more than an hour. It’s only your first lesson, after all.”

“What? A whole barking hour … without moving?” Deryn’s muscles were already complaining, and she could see the crewmen stifling their laughter. One of the hydrogen sniffers crept forward to snuffle her boot.

“This is nothing,” Alek said. “When I first started training with Count Volger, he wouldn’t even let me hold a sword!”

“Well, that sounds like a daft way to teach someone sword fighting.”

“Your body has to learn the proper stance. Otherwise you’ll fall into bad habits.”

Deryn snorted. “You’d think that in a fight not moving might be a bad habit! And if we’re just standing here, why are you wearing armor?”

Alek didn’t answer, just narrowed his eyes, his saber motionless in the air. Deryn could see her own point wavering. She set her teeth.

Of course, barking Prince Alek would have been taught how to fight in the proper way. From what she could tell, his whole life had been a procession of tutors. Count Volger, his fencing master, and Otto Klopp, his master of mechaniks, might be the only teachers with him now that he was on the run. But back when he’d lived in the Hapsburg family castle, there must have been a dozen more, all of them cramming Alek’s attic with yackum: ancient languages, parlor manners, and Clanker superstitions. No wonder he thought that standing about like a pair of coatracks was educational.

But Deryn wasn’t about to let some stuck-up prince outlast her.

So she stood there glaring at him, perfectly still. As the minutes stretched out, her body stiffened, her muscles beginning to throb. And it was worse inside her brain, boredom twisting into anger and frustration, the rumble of the airship’s Clanker engines turning her head into a beehive.

The trickiest part was holding Alek’s stare. His dark green eyes stayed locked on hers, as unwavering as his sword point. Now that she knew Alek’s secrets—the murder of his parents, the pain of leaving home behind, the cold weight of his family squabbles starting this awful war—Deryn could see the sadness behind that gaze.

At odd moments she could see tears brightening Alek’s eyes, only a fierce, relentless pride holding them back. And sometimes when they competed over stupid things, like who could climb the ratlines fastest, Deryn almost wanted to let him win.

But she could never say these things aloud, not as a boy, and Alek would never meet her eyes like this again, if he ever learned she was a girl.

“Alek …,” she began.

“Need a rest?” His smirk wiped her charitable thoughts away.

“Get stuffed,” she said. “I was just wondering, what’ll you Clankers do when we get to Constantinople?”

The point of Alek’s sword wavered for a moment. “Count Volger will think of something. We’ll leave the city as soon as possible, I expect. The Germans will never look for me in the wilds of the Ottoman Empire.”

Deryn glanced at the empty horizon ahead. The Leviathan might reach

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