For those who need to ration time or spoons, this part runs to 2,055 words.
Mrs Hedges ducked back into the family throng and emerged in good order with her husband. “My husband, Mr Thomas Hedges, your highness.”
“Prince Ramanchuk.” Mr Hedges, a shorter man than any of his male relatives with a moustache that insisted on trying to straggle, looked the prince up and down. “I understand you have a request concerning my daughter Millicent?”
“Yes sir. I was hoping you would permit her to be my companion at the captain’s table this evening for dinner.”
Mr Hedges considered for a moment. “I don’t see why not, as long as she rejoins us in the salon before the tea tray is brought out.”
“Thank you, sir. I will take good care of her.” That neat little bow again.
I’m sure you will, your highness,” replied Mr Hedges. “After all, someone did think highly enough of you to admit you to the Order of St Nathaneal.” The prince bowed again and he was slightly flushed this time, Millie noticed.
The captain was hosting a balanced group at dinner, of which Millie was the youngest. The captain and her cousin John, who had also been invited to the table, were both without partners and were being partnered by two middle-aged Nordic Countesses. The rest of the table was made up of married couples and Millie was seated opposite Prince Ramanchuk and between a late middle-aged Terrencian Baron with military medals and a black haired government official. Dinner passed companionably with both her neighbours encouraging Millie to use her school girl Terrencian and Prince Ramanchuk gaving her encouraging looks from the other side of the table. Millie remembered her mother’s strictures on young ladies and alcohol, and so only drank a little of each of the wines that accompanied dinner, contenting herself with water the rest of the time. Thanks to her cold she had to use her handkerchief more than she would have liked, but no-one seemed to think she was doing the wrong thing. Dessert was finished almost before she realised it and when the captain was satisfied that everyone had finished their meal he announced that port, coffee and cigars were available in the port and starboard smoking rooms, for gentlemen and ladies respectively, with coffee and light entertainment in the salon until the tea tray at eleven.
Millie thanked the government official for helping her with her chair then had to grab the table when her vertigo made itself known again. “Are you ill, Miss Hedges?” The government official looked concerned, as did the two ladies on either side of the Prince.
“Thank you, sir, but I think I’ll be fine in a moment,” Millie smiled wanly at him. “I was all right while I was sitting down but the change in position has upset my vertigo.”
“Sitting down again would make things worse wouldn’t they?” The official said sympathetically.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Millie looked for Prince Ramanchuk and found that he was almost at her side. “I’m sorry, your highness, but I think I need your help again.”
“Please don’t worry Miss Hedges, that is what I’m here for.” He came up to her and offered her his arm again and Millie took it gratefully. “Perhaps a slow walk along the observation deck to the salon? Fewer people seem to be taking that route.”
“That might be a very good idea. Lots of movement around me seems to make it worse.” Something occurred to her, “Wouldn’t you rather be taking port with the other gentlemen?”
“After dinner port is a Cadleran custom,” he waved dismissively. “I don’t object to it but I prefer vodka, or tea.”
“I see. Then a slow walk to the salon would be very acceptable.” She let him pick their path through the tables and chairs to the doorway and followed his lead when he turned right.
When they entered the observation deck on the opposite side of the ship to where they’d met that afternoon he said, “I thought you might enjoy the view of the southern sky.” The deck was dimly lit at floor level so that the stars weren’t blotted out. “If you stand at the railing, on a clear night you can see the lights of the cantons in the Alps. With your vertigo, though, I think we’ll just stay back here and look at the stars.”
“That does seem sensible,” Millie agreed. “May be on the way home I can get a better look at the view.”
“Will your vertigo subside?” Millie couldn’t tell from his tone whether Ramanchuk was genuinely concerned or simply making conversation.
“It should go away when my cold is better, it always has before.” She sighed. “I hope I don’t get it from travelling in airships because that would mean that the trip home could be just as bad.”
Millie didn’t find out what the Prince would say to that because at that moment he shoved her away from him and pulled his left arm free of her hand. She made an exclamation of shock but when she turned to ask him what he was doing, and almost fell doing so, Millie found herself looking at a fight that was four against one. One of those four was wielding some sort of club and she thought they must have come out of the darkened corridor she and the Prince had just passed.
Millie had never seen an all-out fight between grown men before, and she found that she didn’t like it. It wasn’t that much like the tussles and wrestling between her male cousins when they were all younger. It was clear to her that Ramanchuk was fighting for his life and that his assailants didn’t care how much they hurt him.
She looked around to see if there was anyone she get help from and sighed with relief when she saw a man at the far end of the observation deck walking briskly towards them. Then she realised that he’d taken a handgun from his pocket and wasn’t hurrying to reach the fight. As he walked he was doing something to the handgun with an object he’d taken from another pocket. When he got close enough he began talking, Millie assumed from the sounds that it was in Russkiy, but the only word she could understand was “Ramanchuk.”
Back in the fight all the combatants were looking the worse for wear and Millie was fairly sure that people’s bodies shouldn’t make some of the sounds she’d heard. One of the assailants seemed to have a broken arm, all their faces were bloodied and another man was moving stiffly, as if in pain. The Prince looked like he was tiring but he managed to throw one of the four men off, leaving only three for a few moments. The felled attacker was back on his feet almost instantaneously but something had come off him somewhere and slid across the floor to hit Millie’s foot.
Millie took a deep breath and knelt down to pick the object up then stood again. When she looked up from what she was holding, Ramanchuk was being held by the two relatively sound assailants and the fifth man was bringing his handgun, with an object on the front of the barrel, to bear. Millie looked down again and what she had was almost the same as Cousin Evelyn’s service revolver, so she clicked the safety over and remembering Evelyn’s words, “If you’ve decided you’re going to do it, then don’t think, just do it.” Millie brought her hand up, pointed her arm where Evelyn had told her to, and pulled the trigger. The recoil was just as bad as she remembered, as was the noise. The man with the gun stopped talking, dropped the gun and collapsed to the ground. Millie swung around to bring the handgun to bear on the Prince’s assailants and swallowed the resulting nausea. “Let him go unless you want to end up like your friend.” The two thugs hesitated. “Do you really want to bet that I can’t do that again?” They let him go. “Your highness, please come over here. You four, up against the wall. Now!”
By the time Prince Ramanchuk had limped over to her, Millie could hear running feet.
“Right, about face you four. Hands on the wall above your head!”
“Miss Hedges,” Ramanchuk was breathing hard and his face was a mess, “thank you. I was beginning to think that perhaps I had no friends here.”
“Well, I had hoped the man on the floor was coming to help you but, obviously, he wasn’t.”
“Where did you get the gun from?”
“One of them dropped it.”
“And how do you know how to use it? You would have been a schoolgirl during the war.”
“My cousin Evelyn taught me how to shoot her service revolver. This is very similar.” Millie took a deep breath.
“There’s a difference between knowing how to fire a gun and shooting to kill.”
“Evelyn told me where to aim to hit something vital. She said that if you were going to shoot someone it had better be because you meant to kill them and you’d better make it count, because you might not get another chance.” The main lights came on in the observation deck. “It looks like we have company.”
“What is going on here?” The demand was made in Terrencian and the speaker was the first officer who was leading a party of crewmen.
“I was attacked,” replied Prince Ramanchuk, “and Miss Hedges rescued me by shooting the leader of my assailants.”
The first officer and a man in a neat, grey uniform inspected the body.
“You did not think to fire a warning shot, Miss Hedges?” The first officer asked the question in Cadleran and looked at her enquiringly while the man in the grey uniform looked through a booklet he’d pulled from his pocket.
“I didn’t think I had time for two shots,” she replied honestly, “and the only place for a warning shot to go would have been through the hull of the airship and that would have been bad, wouldn’t it?”
“Ja,” he nodded approvingly, “very bad.”
The man in the grey uniform finished comparing something in his booklet to the dead man and put the booklet away. “Handcuff each of these men and tie a rod between their teeth,” he ordered in Terrencian, “including the one in the steward’s uniform. I don’t want any suicides in custody on my watch.”
“Kriminalhauptmeister, is that necessary?” The first officer seemed uncomfortable with the instruction.
“I believe the dead man to be Yevgeny Pavelovich Belkov, a wanted murderer within the Empire and considered so dangerous we have orders to shoot at the slightest provocation. He is supposedly in the employ of and supported by the Russkian Revolutionary Party and their agents are known to carry suicide pills.” The man in the grey uniform who was, it seemed, a Terrencian policeman, turned to Millie’s companion and asked formally, “Prince Ramanchuk, is there any reason you know of that the Russkian Revolutionary Party would send an assassination squad after you?”
“I’m a member of a princely family , I belong to one of the chivalric orders they’re trying to wipe out and I rescued one of my brothers and his family from a train that was allegedly taking them to an eastern labour camp, incidentally releasing everyone else on the train.”
“Allegedly taking them to an eastern labour camp?” The policeman seemed to question the wording.
“It was going in the wrong direction to transfer to that line.” The implications of that statement rippled through the listeners.
The policeman turned to the first officer, “Sir, if I may have assistance to take the prisoners to the brig, can you arrange for Prince Ramanchuk and the body to go to the infirmary and for Miss Hedges to be returned to her family?” He then addressed Millie in Cadleran. “Fraulein Hedges, although you did what any police officer in the Empire would have done, you will need to spend some time being questioned by my superiors when we arrive in the capital.”
“I should think so, sir,” she still had the gun trained at the prisoners as they were being cuffed and gagged, “after all, I did kill a man.”