Flying straight from the pages of the Gideon Smith steampunk novels is airship pilot Rowena Fanshawe, who in this tale pre-dating the books discovers that heroes do not necessarily always behave with honor.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Claire Eddy.
Men lie, considered Rowena Fanshawe. Men always lie. Whether deliberately or not, whether for personal gain or for the best of intentions, whether malicious or misguided, sooner or later men lie.
Rowena curled as deep into her shearling jacket as she was able, drawing her jodhpur-clad knees up to her chest and blowing into her hands. The inside of the windshield of the Skylady was already coated with a thin web of ice. She had severe doubts about whether the dirigible would even get airborne again. Night had fallen and paper lanterns gave dull illumination to the stone streets of Tashi Lhunpo. Somewhere out there, in the vast monastery reputedly founded by the first Dalai Lama, where the huge statue of the golden Buddha presided over all, the Hero of the Empire conducted his business. Half an hour, he had said, before he came for her and brought her to the warmth, and some food.
That had been three hours ago.
They would no doubt be reading some version or other of the meeting in a future issue of the penny blood World Marvels & Wonders, back in the streets of London where greenery overflowed the steppes of the ziggurats in the Mayan style that had so entranced the capital recently, or in the shadow of the Lady of Liberty flood barrier that marked the triumph over the American rebels in 1775. Beneath the gothic spires of New York and across British America they’d be devouring the tale, in the hot Indian nights of the Raj territories they’d read as punka wallahs fanned the displaced Englishmen, even in the penal colonies of Australia they’d fight to the death for the latest adventure. Over half the known world, they couldn’t get enough of the feats of Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the Empire.
And each story, as always, would be prefaced with:
“This adventure, as always, is utterly true, and faithfully retold by my good friend, Doctor John Reed” — Captain Lucian Trigger
Another lie. The biggest lie of them all. For it was Doctor John Reed who crept the alleys in the shadowed corners of the world, who flew above the clouds to places with forgotten names, whose name was whispered in places that didn’t exist, or shouldn’t. And it was Captain Lucian Trigger, frail and aged, who sat at home in Mayfair, awaiting his lover’s return with pen poised at inkwell, ready to romanticise the adventures for a sensation-hungry public.
Rowena rubbed her hands together. How long was Reed going to be in there? She should have known things would not be straightforward when he informed her that his meeting in Lhasa with the Cossack officer and Russian spy Nicolas Notovitch had been satisfactorily concluded… but dash it, if it hadn’t thrown up more surprises. As the mere pilot, engaged and handsomely paid, it had been Rowena’s job simply to take Reed to Tibet and return him to London safely. She didn’t know the reason for the assignation, nor did she care to. But, of course, her passenger being who he was, an opportunity for what he called “a small diversion” soon presented itself. Reed had found her in the local tavern, excitedly saying they must make haste for Tashi Lhunpo.
“Notovitch has seen two people known to both of us pass this way,” he’d said. “Professor Reginald Halifax and… Pieter Von Karloff!”
Rowena had agreed that the pair were strange bedfellows, especially in this Godforsaken corner of the world. Halifax was a noted archaeological professor who had helped out Reed on previous occasions, and was a man who, he asserted, he could call friend. Pieter Von Karloff had never boasted—and would never deserve—the friendship of decent, honest men, declared Reed. A Prussian by birth he had no loyalty to any flag, save that which paid him the most. After the meeting with Notovich, Reed mused: “Von Karloff is a brilliant archaeologist, but one driven by greed and the lure of fortune. I cannot believe that Halifax has thrown his lot in with him. Rowena, do you suppose a short side-trip to Tashi Lhunpo might be in order…?”
Which was how Rowena found herself to be freezing in the cockpit of the Skylady while Dr John Reed had disappeared into the swirling blizzard to seek answers in the ramshackle huts and houses that clustered around the imposing shape of the lamasery. How much longer was he going to be in there? And what plans had he made for the rest of the night? Because with the best will in the world, the Skylady was going nowhere until morning, when Rowena could defrost the propellers and loosen up the workings of the gear-driven engine. Eventually she made out a shape in the gloom, waving at her frantically from the front of a stone-built house in the lee of the monastery. Reed, at last. Gathering her satchel—Rowena carried few luxuries on her travels, but liked to keep a pistol at hand—she ventured out into the raging snow storm.
As John Reed ushered her quickly into the shelter of the small, flat-roofed house, Rowena glanced at the hooded eyes of the shaven-headed monks who stood silently in the small shelter afforded by the ornate facade held up on four vast red columns that announced the grandeur of the lamasery. Inside the small dwelling, among the dancing shadows cast by a gratifyingly hot fire in the hearth, sat a stocky Tibetan with a long, thin beard, wrapped in animal furs and leather. He inclined his head at her and puffed on the long stem of a clay pipe.
“This is Jamyang,” said Reed, bidding her sit alongside the fire on a rickety stool. “He’s something of a holy man, as far as I can gather.”
Rowena caught the man openly staring at her as she shrugged off the shearling jacket, her snow-wet white shirt clinging to her frame. She pulled off her leather flying hat, running a hand through her cropped auburn hair and smiled. “I suppose you don’t get too many visitors up here.”
“Not many like you,” said Jamyang in gruff but clear English. “Not many young women flying airships. Most young women like you in Victoria’s England attending parties and strolling through parks, hmm?”
“I’m not most young women in Victoria’s England,” she said. And if there were times when Rowena Fanshawe, proprietor and sole employee of Fanshawe Aeronautical Endeavours, did sometimes crave a more normal life, those feelings were soon chased away by the sudden shiver she was getting now at the base of her spine, the one that signaled the start of adventure.
“Jamyang has stew on the go,” said Reed, shrugging off his own fur layers. His hair was more gray than brown now, his face lined and beaten from the extremes of weather his adventures carried him to. John Reed was handsome and striking, thought Rowena, yet managed to crisscross borders and inveigle his way into the most unlikely places at will. Perfect for his job. Reed sniffed at the aromas coming from the cooking pot. “Yak, I’m afraid, like everything else around here, including the candles, the rug, and the bed-clothes. Did I mention Jamyang has extended his hospitality and we’ll be sleeping here tonight before moving on in the morning?”
“Back to London?” said Rowena, arching an eyebrow.
“Well, of course, eventually…” said Reed.
“Give you an inch and you take a fucking mile,” said Rowena.
Jamyang chuckled. “No, not many like you, Miss Fanshawe.” He pointed his pipe at Reed. “Plenty like him, though. And recently; a party several days ago passed through here, looking for—”
“Hold, Jamyang!” commanded Reed. “A dramatic pause, please! Rowena, our friend told me earlier that the blasted Prussian Von Karloff was indeed here, or at least a party matching his description, and that of Professor Halifax, too. Have you ever met Von Karloff? Of course, you have, what am I thinking! You’ll recall the thugs and vagabonds he surrounds himself with: hard and often cruel men, well-suited for the hunt which Von Karloff devoted his life to—he must win at all costs, with no quarter given to his enemies and rivals.”
Rowena smiled mildly. “As Jamyang said, people like you.”
Reed cast a dark look at her. “You know yourself, Rowena, it is a strange and mysterious life we lead, on the fringes of society and more in the shadows than the sunlight. If my methods have, on occasion, proved… extreme, or outré, then they have been employed only in the furtherance of the British Empire!”
“Of course,” said Rowena, taking a wooden spoonful of stew from the bowl Jamyang had handed her.
“Anyway, Von Karloff and his gang had holed up in the local tavern. The locals at first thought they’d come to loot the place—there’s a bloody monstrous Buddha in the temple, Rowena, all bedecked with gold leaf. I’ll show you in the morning—but it soon transpired they had an even more outrageous mission in mind.”
Rowena turned to Jamyang. “What was Von Karloff’s business here?”
“He searches for Shangri-La,” said Jamyang. “I am afraid he might find it.”
Rowena looked blankly at the Tibetan, then at Reed. “And what is Shangri-La?”
“That’s whatI asked,” nodded Reed. “Tell her what you told me, Jamyang.”
Jamyang told Rowena a tale, painting a perfect picture with words, of a lush valley that existed beyond the mountains in defiance of the howling Himalayan winds and sub-zero temperatures. Shangri-La was a holy place where time flowed differently—the inhabitants had lived for many generations of mortal folk. Von Karloff, he said, was hoping to steal the secrets of Shangri-La’s eternal life.
“He must be stopped, Rowena,” said Reed.
“I was afraid you were going to say that.”
Jamyang nodded. “If it is your desire to stop this Prussian, I can help you. Your Von Karloff has commandeered a team of sherpa to take him over the mountains. I know of a quicker way, but it will still be dangerous and treacherous.”
“It would be,” nodded Rowena.
“Well?” said Reed.
“You will go, whatever I do, won’t you? And I’d have to go back to Whitehall and tell them that I’d let you go off on some harebrained scheme on your own?” She could just imagine what Mr Walsingham, the shadowy head of the British secret service, would say to that. “I don’t suppose I have much choice.”
“There may be something that persuades you even more than my employer’s ire. Jamyang, tell Rowena about those who live in this fabled Shangri-La.”
The Tibetan shrugged. “They are all women.”
“All of them?”
Reed nodded. “And you know Von Karloff’s thugs. Imagine what they would do to this community of helpless females…”
Rowena yawned and stretched, suddenly dozy in the heat of the fire. “You mentioned a place to lie? I shall sleep on it, and you’ll have my answer in the morning.”
The year before, Rowena had been approached by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies to give a talk at one of their meetings. She was considered something of a role model for young women. But while she sympathized, Rowena did not think that printing leaflets and writing to Members of Parliament would improve the lot of women, nor would preaching to the converted in a draughty church hall in Southwark.
Riding to the rescue of a community of women in a remote corner of the Himalayas, though? As Rowena pulled the pungent yak-hair blankets up to her chin on the hard bed in the tiny room in Jamyang’s home, she reflected that John Reed possibly knew her better than she knew herself.
Rowena Fanshawe was just six years old when she learned how men lie, always lie. Her father was a ’stat pilot, and it was from him that she inherited her love of flying, of rising above the earthbound world shackled to its mores and traditions and constraints, of feeling so unfettered and free. Even before she could read, she would look at the pictures in a book about Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who astounded London in 1782 by fitting a hand-powered propeller to a balloon and crossing the English Channel on an amazing flying machine equipped with flapping wings for propulsion, and a bird-like tail for steerage. Within a few short years the astonishment at Blanchard’s flight turned into a race to transform his invention into a workable, mass-produced flying machine. The age of the airship had dawned.
Almost a century after Blanchard’s epoch-changing flight, when Rowena Fanshawe was very young, her father came to her—he and her mother had separated some time before, a scandal from which she never truly recovered—and told her he was going on a long journey and might not see her for some time. It was a secret journey, but he confided in her it was to somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and he would bring her back a present. What would she like?
“A monkey!” she had said delightedly.
For long months she waited for him to return with her monkey. One pale morning there was a knock at the door. But it was not her father. It was a dour-faced man in black, come to tell her mother that Rowena’s father had lied.
He was lost somewhere in the far reaches of the world. He was presumed dead.
He wasn’t ever coming back.
“No,” said Rowena. “Absolutely not.”
Morning had brought bright, clear skies; the storm had passed over, leaving the community around the Tashi Lhunpo monastery blanketed with blinding white snow, the Skylady ’s small gondolaalmost buried.
“But it is the only way,” said Reed. “Von Karloff has several days’ march on us, and if we were to trek through the mountains ourselves we would never reach Shangri-La in time to stop whatever nefarious plans he has. Besides, the route is deadly and almost impassable in parts.”
“You don’t understand me,” said Rowena patiently and slowly, as though speaking to a child. “I agree that the most expedient way would be to travel by the Skylady . But the air is too thin and cold; we simply wouldn’t have the lift to get anywhere near over those mountains. We only just made it to Tashi Lhunpo. Do I need to bore you with the mechanics of dirigibles?”
“No,” said Reed.
“Good,” said Rowena. “Because I really don’t want to have to calculate how big a balloon would be required to get us up that high. It would probably be bigger than the damned monastery. And unless Jamyang is going to knit us a balloon that big from yak hair, and has a store of helium to match, then it is just not going to happen.”
“But,” said Reed, “what if we had a little extra lift?”
Rowena frowned at the sight of Jamyang and four shaven-headed monks tramping through the calf-deep snow towards them, each of the monks carrying a tube as tall and thick as himself. “Extra lift?”
“You do realize the chances are that they’ll be picking pieces of us off these mountains until next Spring?” said Rowena. The Skylady had been cleared of snow and the gears oiled. The aerostat was powered by a powerful gear-engine, which Rowena had liberally smeared with yak oil to prevent the cogs freezing up again. The propellers at either side of the small gondola which held the cockpit and a tiny cargo hold had been picked clean of ice and the engine cranked to within an inch of its life, all by Rowena’s hand as she eschewed help with almost everything, but especially where her beloved ‘stat was concerned. They were, to all intents and purposes, ready to fly, the monks from the lamasery poised at the mooring ropes anchored to stone blocks.
“It will work,” said Jamyang.
Rowena looked sidelong at the Tibetan sandwiched between her and Reed in the cramped cockpit. “You’ve done this before?”
He looked at her and blinked his heavy-lidded eyes. “No. Of course not.”
“Then how do you know it will work?”
Jamyang shrugged, the furs on his shoulders rising and falling. “Why would it not?”
She sighed. “Then let us go.”
Jamyang raised his hand in signal to the monks below and while four of them began to loosen the mooring ropes, another group bearing torches moved in at the four corners of the wooden frame around the dirigible’s helium balloon and simultaneously touched the flames to long threads hanging from the bases of the tubes that had been fixed to the skeleton. As each one fizzed into life, Rowena bit her lip. This was madness. But the Skylady was free of her moorings and drifting slowly up in the thin air.
“What bearing, Jamyang?” she said.
He pointed to the north-east and Rowena released the shaft-brake, the propellers creaking into life and driving the ‘stat forward, away from the imposing sight of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery. She brought it around to fix on Jamyang’s bearing, tapping the altimeter on the instrument panel. The mountain fell sharply away beneath them, but much higher peaks were rising up in the distance.
“We’re already at five thousand feet,” she said. “Which is about as high as the Skylady goes. How long before we get your extra lift, Jamyang?”
He scrutinized the bleak, mountainous landscape in front of them, then glanced through the side-window at the slowly-burning fuse. “I anticipate it will happen just in time, Miss Fanshawe.”
Just in time couldn’t come soon enough for Rowena Fanshawe. The Himalayas were a harsh, unforgiving landscape, and she couldn’t conceive of Von Karloff and his crew trying to scale these peaks on foot. The mountains ahead of them had come progressively closer in the four hours they had been airborne, and the true scale of them was only now becoming apparent. They obliterated the sunlight, casting the whole valley beneath them in shadow, and Rowena tried to estimate their height using their current bearing and altitude. When she came up with a figure that was at least four times that of the Skylady ’s maximum lift, she stopped trying to calculate it.
“How long until we hit the side of that mountain?” asked Reed.
“You’re being awfully blasé about this,” she said through gritted teeth.
“That’s because I have ultimate faith in Jamyang.”
Rowena didn’t say that’s very good of you as you didn’t even know him until last night but instead made a swift estimation and said, “Perhaps twenty minutes, maybe half an hour if I kill the engines. Just enough time to turn around. But if we don’t do it now…”
“No need,” said Jamyang, looking over her shoulder through the side window. “I think the fuses are about ready.”
“What exactly is in those tubes, Jamyang?”
“Gunpowder,” he just had time to say, then there were four sudden screaming noises, so close together as to form one unholy cacophony, and the Skylady suddenly lurched forwards and upwards, some invisible force pinning Rowena in the leather pilot’s seat as the wall of the mountain—now so close she could make out cracks and crevices in the rock—flew past as though a cine film of the sort they showed on summer nights in Hyde Park played at the wrong speed. Rowena forced her head to move to the right and she cursed as she saw flames. But the ‘stat wasn’t on fire—at least, not yet. The tubes the monks had screwed to the dirigible frame were spitting blue flames with such force that the Skylady was being forcibly thrown upwards. Suddenly they crested the top of the mountain into blue sky and brilliant sunshine flooded the cockpit. Within seconds of each other the tubes burned themselves out and quieted, and for a moment the Skylady hung in the air, as though the ‘stat itself could not believe the altitude it had achieved.
Rowena opened her mouth to speak but felt suddenly choked. Gasping for breath, she looked in alarm at Jamyang who nodded. “Thin air. Bring down. Now.”
“Down where?” she managed, following his outstretched arm. Then she gasped again, though from wonder rather than the thinness of the air. The mountain fell sharply away in front of them, a lost horizon hiding a secret marvel in the heart of the most inhospitable landscape on Earth.
Where the morning flight had been through the bitterest cold and most furious snow, Shangri-La seemed impervious to the Himalayan weather. It was a long valley, surrounded by the mountain range’s high peaks, which were indeed capped with snow. Thick clouds hugged the summits of the mountains, but they parted and dissipated overhead, allowing the unfiltered sunlight to flood the valley. And where all Rowena had seen since her arrival was rock and snow and scrubland, Shangri-La was a verdant paradise of meadows ablaze with colour, patchwork fields given over to swaying crops, blue pools and white foaming rivers. Orchards of trees groaned with fruit and herds of deer grazed the lowlands near the bank of the river, which began high out of sight in the mountains and disappeared into an underground channel. And in the middle of the valley were clustered simple houses, built around a large structure that must have been the administrative centre of the community.
“By God, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” breathed Reed as the Skylady began to descend towards the valley.
“Are you a noble man?” Jamyang asked quietly.
Reed placed his gloved hand over his heart. “A man is only as noble as others see him to be.”
Jamyang nodded, apparently satisfied, though to Rowena this seemed a typically opaque answer. The Tibetan said, “Only a handful of men alive today know of Shangri-La. I have placed a great burden on your soul by showing it to you. I hope you are to be trusted with it.”
“It’s miraculous,” Reed breathed. “It’s impossible.”
“It’s in trouble,” said Rowena, pointing down the valley. Thin columns of smoke rose from the village, and tiny figures scurried between the burning dwellings.
“Von Karloff!” Reed hissed. “The villain has beaten us here!”
“But only just,” said Jamyang.
Shedding his animal skins in the suddenly balmy atmosphere, John Reed reached for his pack behind the seats and withdrew his rifle, then checked the knives strapped to his thighs and boots. “Then let us show him that paradise is not his for the taking.”
Rowena nosed towards the village, peering through the rapidly-melting ice on the windshield towards the burning houses around the larger, temple-like structure. “How can an entire village, so cut off from the world, be populated only by women?” she said. “How do they survive, continue their lineage?”
Jamyang said, “They do not need to. Those who spend time in the valley say time moves differently here. Some of those who dwell here have done so for many years… centuries, even. And they grow old at a snail’s pace!”
“Great Scott! It is no wonder they live in secrecy!” said Reed, slamming ammunition into his rifle.
“They may be almost immortal, but they are still human,” said Jamyang. “They say the women of Shangri-La will welcome to their arms only men who are strong and resourceful enough to breach the valley’s defences… thus the purity of their race is assured. And they only ever give birth to girl children.”
“A kind of natural selection, as old Darwin has bent my ear about on more than one occasion,” said Reed.
“Perhaps they will expect you to help further their race, given you are the vaunted Hero of the Empire,” said Rowena with a small smile.
Reed shot her a look, but there was no time for a riposte, because they were now at the outskirts of the village, and the sight sickened Rowena to her stomach. There were half a dozen men, rampaging through the village, dragging the women from their huts and ravishing them there on the ground. At the midst of it all stood the arrogant Prussian himself, hands on his hips. To one side was Professor Halifax, slumped by a well, his head in his hands.
“At least the Professor seems to be an unwilling conscript to this hellishness,” said Reed. He turned and opened the side windshield, letting in the fragrant, warm air, and leaned out, taking aim with his rifle. His first shot hit one of Von Karloff’s men square in the forehead as he tore like an animal at the simple dress of a young woman.
“Can you handle a gun?” said Rowena to Jamyang.
“I have devoted my life to non-violence,” he said.
“Then take the wheel,” she said. “Keep it tight to starboard and we’ll describe a tight circle over the village.”
Rowena opened her window and took up her pistol, taking careful aim and bringing down another of Von Karloff’s men, as Reed found another target. Von Karloff’s men were in disarray, looking wildly up at the Skylady , and the Prussian frowned and called his men to rally, pointing down to the river bank and the shelter of a copse of trees. Von Karloff tugged at Professor Halifax’s shoulder, but Rowena fired again, narrowly missing the Prussian’s outstretched hand. Von Karloff recoiled as though burned, and fled with his men, leaving Halifax where he slumped, as Reed and Rowena emptied their guns into the escaping villains.
When she decided to follow in her father’s rapidly fading footsteps and become a ’stat pilot, Rowena knew she was handicapped from the very start. Very few women became pilots. When she turned up at the Union Hall of the Esteemed Brethren of International Airshipmen and said she wanted to sign up they laughed at her and told her to go home and find a husband.
But Rowena persevered. She could already fly—did she not have her father’s blood coursing in her veins?—but that wasn’t enough. She had not just to match the men at their own game, she had to beat them. So she learned to handle a gun, taught herself to hold her liquor, and realised that to be a true ’stat pilot she had to leave the conventions of polite society on the ground.
Thus, her head reeling—though not unpleasantly—with absinthe one winter night in a flea-bitten Budapest hotel, she had allowed a sweet-talking American adventurer named Louis Cockayne to guide her unsteadily to his room and peel off her britches and shirt, all the while believing his murmured proclamations of love as she lay down for him. And when she woke, fuzzy-headed and naked in a tangle of bedsheets in the morning, Louis Cockayne had gone, leaving only the scent of his cologne and the bar-bill behind.
The lies he had whispered, amplified by the green fairy perched on her shoulder, stung her badly, but it was a lesson learned. Once you lived your life in the skies, love was for the birds alone. She hardened her heart and, like Cockayne and those who lived their lives in the skyways, embraced personal gratification and freedom over moral fibre.
Which, she had to admit, was a lot more fun.
Rowena took the wheel from Jamyang and brought the Skylady down in the centre of the village, an Eden despoiled by Von Karloff and his gang. Reed and Jamyang threw down the anchors and Rowena slid down the mooring rope to properly secure the ‘stat to the large stone well behind which Professor Halifax cowered.
“Reginald!” called Reed. “What on Earth brings you here with that fiend?”
The professor fell to his knees before his saviours, gabbling about how he had encountered Von Karloff in Shanghai and the Prussian had taken him prisoner to utilize his archaeological know-how on the nefarious raid on Shangri-La.
“You could have refused,” said Rowena, looking around to where the women helped their fallen, ravished comrades.
“He would have killed me,” said Halifax wretchedly.
There were perhaps a hundred women living in the community, all frozen in that wondrous flush where youth and maturity combine, all beauteous. They had neither the Oriental features of the Tibetans nor the angular features of the English, but were somewhere between, speaking of a dash of all the peoples of the world in their lissome bodies and even, pleasant faces. They seemed to be nominally led by a dark-haired woman dressed in a simple silk shift who greeted the newcomers warily.
She introduced herself in perfect English as Kella, and when Rowena—for it was she Kella looked to as the authority of the small group, rather than John Reed, which Rowena could tell rankled him to no end—had convinced her that they were of honourable intentions and were, in fact, pursuing Von Karloff, she welcomed them with the offer of milk and honeydew.
Jamyang graciously declined and murmured to Rowena, “Drink and eat not in Shangri-La, lest you would remain here for several lifetimes.”
Instead, they considered Von Karloff’s position, half a mile away in the copse of trees.
“For what purpose does he commit these atrocities, at such effort?” Rowena wondered.
“Simple,” said Kella, and led them into the large stone structure at the centre of the village. It was as a shrine or holy place, lit by burning braziers, and at the centre of it was a raised dais.
“It has sat here, safely, for many years, that to which we devote our extended lifetimes,” said Kella. “A gift from God, held in trust by the women of Shangri-La until such time as mankind is ready to receive it.”
“What kind of gift?” Rowena said.
“The Golden Apple of Shangri-La,” said Halifax miserably. “And now it is gone with that vagabond. You are familiar with the tale of the Tower of Babel?”
Rowena was, in passing, and Reed excitedly recounted in detail how the ancient Babylonians had wished to build a structure to scrape the underside of Heaven itself, not in glory to God but as a show of humanity’s strength and invention.
“When God caused the Tower to fall he wished upon man the confusion of languages,” said Kella. “Where one tongue was spoken among the remnants who had survived the Great Flood, now a multitude of clamouring languages divided humanity. But the situation was not to be permanent.”
“This Apple…?” said Rowena.
Kella nodded her beautiful head. “God gifted mankind the Golden Apple, which removes the barriers of language. It was kept here in Shangri-La, to which it also gives the bounty of lush protection from the Himalayan winter. When mankind is ready, the Golden Apple will once again unite the nations of the world in one tongue.”
They exited the temple and surveyed the copse where Von Karloff’s men could be seen peering from the trees. By now they would have realized that even with their losses they still outnumbered the crew of the Skylady . Rowena shivered. Was the air several degrees cooler than when they had landed, though the sun still burned high in the sky?
“Shangri-La will die without the Golden Apple,” said Kella, as though reading Rowena’s mind. Even as she spoke the wind became colder and flurries of snow drifted at the far reaches fo the valley.
“Winter is coming to Shangri-La,” said Halifax soberly. “Even its removal from the temple is already having effects.”
“But why would he do this?” Rowena said. “He is a collector, first and foremost, an archaeologist. Even Von Karloff has boundaries.”
“Cui bono,” said Jamyang quietly.
Reed scratched his chin. “Latin. You are most learned, friend Jamyang.”
Rowena glared at him. “And it means…?”
“To whose benefit? The Golden Apple is a great prize, but you are right, Rowena. Even men like Von Karloff know when they are going too far. Perhaps he is not acting merely on his own volition.”
She began to reload her pistol. “We must get the apple back, before he leaves the valley. Then we can work out who is pulling his strings, if anyone.”
Rowena kept the Skylady stocked with several pistols and a rifle, and she took the bigger weapon and outfitted Halifax—though he protested that he was merely an academic—and Kella and two of her Shangri-La women with the remaining handguns.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t made a move yet,” said Reed as they crouched behind a small hillock, a mere fifty yards from the copse. “We took down four of the crew; I saw Von Karloff flee with two more. What of his team of sherpas, I wonder?”
“They would not have ventured into the valley,” said Jamyang. “They will be waiting at the mountain pass to the north-west of the valley.”
The sky above them was darkening as thick clouds gathered, and Rowena felt the cold more keenly now. Reed risked raising his head above the hillock and called, “Von Karloff! You know who I am! Surrender!”
“I wish to parlay,” came the answer in English but with clipped, Germanic tones. “I have three men injured. We cannot make it back across the mountains.”
“It’s a trick,” whispered Rowena. “He surely doesn’t care about his men.”
Reed narrowed his eyes. “How many can we take in the Skylady , Rowena?”
She did a quick headcount. “Seven at a push. If we return the Apple the air here should be warm enough to get us over the mountains, but only just. There are too many of us if Von Karloff has three men.”
“We can’t take you, Pieter,” called Reed. “There’s one too many.”
There was a pause, then a sudden shot rang out, startling them all into dropping down behind the hillock. Von Karloff called out, “My mistake. I miscounted. I have two injured men.”
“Bastard,” said Rowena.
“Bring back the apple and we’ll talk,” shouted Reed.
“I cannot,” said Von Karloff from the trees. “I have been entrusted with the task of taking home the prize. Failure is not an option.”
“Is it worth your life?” called Reed.
There was a further pause. “You tell me.”
Reed looked quizzically at Rowena, and Jamyang murmured, “Cui bono.”
“To whose benefit?” said Rowena. “Ask him who he’s working for.”
“Whatever your paymaster is offering for this piece, it isn’t enough,” shouted Reed. “Who is it, anyway, Pieter? The Brass Caliph? Esther LeGris? The Duke of Wessex?”
There was harsh laughter from the trees, already losing their leaves in the cold wind. “Do you really want to know? It’s Walsingham.”
Reed stood, shrugging off Rowena’s hand on his arm, brandishing his rifle at the copse. “You lie! Come out here, Von Karloff, or we’ll come in there and Shangri-La shall be your mausoleum.” Then Rowena gasped as he began to fire a volley of bullets into the trees.
When Reed’s cartridges were spent he slumped to his knees, as Von Karloff cautiously emerged from the thicket, his arms aloft and a glinting orb gripped in one hand. Behind him limped a thick-set man with bload-soaked trousers and a worried look on his face.
“Calm yourself, I’m here,” said Von Karloff. “And good news; you have one less passenger to worry about.”
Von Karloff submitted himself to their control and Rowena had him and his remaining thug securely tied with ropes while Reed relieved him of the Golden Apple of Shangri-La. It truly was beautiful to behold, reflecting the dulling sunshine and gathering clouds above them. But with each step back towards the village centre the winter seemed to relinquish its tightening grip on the valley, the wind grew warmer, the dying flowers began to bloom again.
Reverently, Reed held the apple in both hands and walked towards the open door of the temple. He emerged from the shadowy depths a moment later, bathed in sunshine, a small yellow bird fluttering about his head. “It is done.”
Kella took his hands as he approached and searched his eyes with her own. “Stay,” she murmured. “At least for a while. Let me thank you, and leave something of yourself to behold. Your daughters would be something to behold.”
Reed smiled sadly. “Would that I could. England needs me.”
Rowena suppressed a smile of her own, at the thought of Dr John Reed siring children with Kella or any other woman. They said that men wanted to be him and women wanted to be possessed by him, but that was just another lie. Kella turned to Rowena. “Shangri-La could use a woman of your bravery.”
Rowena shook her head. “It is paradise here, but it is not my home. It may not be perfect out there, but it could be.”
Kella took her hands. “I was not born in Shangri-La, and though it is many of your lifetimes since I came here, I can imagine the outside has not changed much. Men fancy they rule the world, but only because women let them think that.”
“It is changing, slowly. Why not come to see it? I would gamble that the world would change quicker, and for the better, with you in it.”
Kella smiled sadly. “Shangri-La is my life now. I have a job to do. Good luck with changing your world, Rowena Fanshawe, and remember this: Women who try to succeed in a man’s world often make the mistake of trying to be more like men. This is wrong. You must be more like a woman, for there is where your power lies.”
With Von Karloff and his injured henchman bound in the hold, and Rowena, Reed, Professor Halifax and Jamyang in the cramped cockpit, the Skylady lifted free from its moorings in the village and turned to the south-west, where the mountainous wall was at its lowest. Rowena leaned from the cockpit to watch Kella waving, until she became a dot obscured by a sudden flurry of snow that caused the ’stat to lurch alarmingly. They scraped over the mountains and began to descend towards the distant warmer air.
Reed remained stubbornly quiet all the way to Shanghai, where he declared he had business. Jamyang said he was of a mind to explore also, and Professor Halifax was happy to return to where Von Karloff had kidnapped him. To Rowena’s amazement, when they landed at Pudong Airship Ground, Reed turned the Prussian and his sole remaining thug loose.
“I thought you would be taking them back to London to answer for their crimes,” she said later, over a rum in the noisy Brethren Union Hall near the aerodrome.
Reed stared morosely into his chipped glass, picking at a plate of fried grasshoppers on the bar. “And what would be the point? You heard what Von Karloff said. He was in the employ of Walsingham the whole time. I have been made a fool.”
She laid a hand on his arm. “That’s not true.”
He shrugged her off. “I’m afraid it is, Rowena. I have been given the appellation the Hero of the Empire, Britannia’s champion, the great adventurer. I have circumnavigated the globe in Queen Victoria’s name, crossed swords with villains such as Von Karloff in forsaken foreign fields. But we are all just being played off against each other, like pawns at Walsingham’s hand.” He finished his drink and stood unsteadily. “But there are no heroes and villains. There is no black and white on Walsingham’s board. There is only grey. Watch my bag while I visit the bathroom, please?”
She watched him weave through the busy bar and glanced down beneath his stool at his duffel bag, the thin rope fastener coming apart around the neck. Did something gleam within? Without even thinking, Rowena reached down and loosened the fasteners. And there it was, wrapped within a dirty linen shirt.
The Golden Apple of Shangri-La.
She stared at it for a long time, until she became aware of John Reed standing above her, suddenly sober. She looked up at him and recalled Kella waving at them until she became nothing in the sudden flurry of snow.
“The valley… Kella… they’ll all be dead, now.”
“Yes,” he said, his eyes glowing in the reflected gas-light bouncing off the Apple’s golden hide.
Rowena searched his eyes, but saw only the apple in their dark depths. “But why?”
Finally he met her gaze. “Cui bono.”
“To whose benefit?”
“I’ve been played for a fool, a pawn, once too often. It’s time I took something back.”
She thought back to Reed emerging from the stone temple at the heart of Shangri-La, the sunlight playing on him, the bird darting about his head. When she thought he had returned the Golden Apple to its rightful place. She stood and began to walk away. Sooner or later, men lie. They always lie.
“You hate me, don’t you?” he called as she threaded her way through Union Hall.
She didn’t stop, or look back. For all her drinking and fighting and flying, Rowena Fanshawe wasn’t just trying to be a man. She was better than that. She was a woman. He called after her again, the same thing, but she didn’t reply, because she didn’t know yet what her answer would be.
All that she knew was that she wasn’t going to lie.
“The Golden Apple of Shangri-La” copyright © 2014 by David Barnett
Art copyright © 2014 by Nekro