Edward had been sitting on the rock, knees drawn up to his chest, for about half an hour when the skitter of falling pebbles drew his gaze away from the gray sea to the headland. A child was picking her way down the path from the cliff top to the beach. Ed growled quietly. Weather that daunted bathers still brought artists out onto the strand, but he'd thought that, having walked to the end of the hotel beach and goat-footed across another quarter-mile of slippery boulders, he'd ensured himself some privacy. No such luck.
The girl was too small and too well-dressed to be out alone; her double-breasted navy coat and blue-and-green plaid tam proclaimed her the daughter of some rich expatriate. Ed kept a disgruntled eye on the skyline, waiting for a rug-toting nurse or an easel-bearing parent or even a bored elder sibling to follow the child over the edge, but the seconds passed and no one did. Frowning, Ed let his heels slide off the rock into the cold sand. Who let her out without a minder? He wondered if he should try to collect the child and return her to her family. Tricky. Unlike most lost property, children usually had strong opinions about being handled by strangers and the last thing Ed needed was to find himself accused of kidnapping in addition to industrial espionage. He could hear Al already: we're supposed to be lying low, brother. "Well," he muttered under his breath, "she's supposed to have someone looking after her."
The decision was taken out of his hands when the child reached the foot of the slope, looked around and saw him. He smiled cautiously. She smiled back and trotted toward him, bobbed hair blowing around a square cheerful face. "Bonjour, m'sieur," she called as soon as she was within hailing distance. "Comment vous-appellez vous?"
He stood to greet her, giving her the same slight bow he would have offered an adult. "Bonjour, mademoiselle. Je m'appelle Edward. Et tu?"
"Je m'appelle Scottie," she said and dropped him a curtsey.
"Scottie?" he repeated, uncertain whether he'd heard correctly.
"Oui, oui," she said and drew herself up proudly to add, "Je suis Americaine!"
Oh. Well, that wasn't surprising. The sad state of the franc drew foreigners to the Riviera in droves nowadays, even out of season; you might meet anyone here, as long as the exchange rate favored their native currency. It was one reason he and Al had chosen this part of the world to go to ground, the other being Al's love of the sea—a trait he surely shared with the small American dividing her attention between Ed and the breaking surf. "Why are you out alone, Scottie?" he asked, relieved not to have to converse further in French. German and English gave him no trouble, but any subject more complicated than directions or the weather in French tangled his tongue within seconds. "Where are your parents?"
"In the house, asleep," said Scottie, pointing at the headland. Must be a villa up there, Ed thought, trying to relate what he knew of the local geography to his scramble along the shore. I hope I haven't wandered onto private property—a hope instantly dashed when Scottie continued, "What are you doing on our beach, M'sieur Edward?"
Damn. He should have checked before he started walking; the more people owned, the less likely they were to share. "I'm sorry," he said, dusting off the skirts of his coat left-handed. "I didn't mean to trespass. If you could show me the way to the road," he added cunningly, "I'll go—"
Her face fell. "No, no, m'sieur—don't go!" So much for cunning. "I only—I just—" He waited while Scottie fished in her conversational repertoire and reeled in a suitable adult catchphrase. "—I wondered what brings you here."
That was a difficult question to answer. My brother and I pissed off too many people in the Ruhr last winter was no explanation for a—how old was she? Five? Eight? Her cheeks were plump with baby fat, but her poise wouldn't have shamed a schoolgirl. "I came down to look at the sea," he said finally.
She bounced, delighted. "So did I! Nanny said this morning that it was too cold, but Papa said before that I could go to the beach every day."
A treat she clearly intended to have, nanny or no nanny. Ed tugged his ponytail into tighter order and tried to remember the tide-table he had consulted last night. Out now; shouldn't turn for another couple of hours. The high water mark was well short of the cliffs, at least—no need to worry about that. But the cloudy sky and stiff sea-breeze mocked the calendar, November's weather in April; winter roses were blooming in Scottie's face. "I'm sure your Papa wouldn't want you playing by the water all alone," he temporized.
"C'est vrai," she agreed. "I never go in the water unless someone is watching. But you're here, M'sieur Edward." She clasped her hands together at her breast and gazed at him with round eyes. "You could watch, couldn't you?"
Ed bit back a Great technique, but you want to drop the hands a little and cock your head about five degrees to the left in favor of a mature, sensible response. "Your nanny's right, Scottie. It's too cold for wading today; you'd catch a chill. But," he added, noting the signs of mutiny brewing in her whitened knuckles and lowered brows, "if you want to dig in the sand or gather shells, I'll watch you for a little while."
She considered that and, to Ed's relief, conceded gracefully with another curtsey and a "Thank you, M'sieur Edward!" Then she scampered off to pick up a twisted length of driftwood and drag it in loops through the wet sand, pausing occasionally to prod the fronds and bulbs of sea-wrack left by the previous tide. Ed hitched himself against the stone and watched, as promised.
If nothing else, Scottie's presence gave the dreary landscape a lift. The Mediterranean's blue-green brilliance and calm clarity seemed a watercolorist's fantasy today. Sea and sky melted blandly into each other, foreshortening the horizon, while the immediate prospect seethed with energy: rollers peaking one after another, cresting into scudding foam or receding sullenly into a following whitecap. On the cliffs, dark goatees of moss and creeper wagged in the wind; now and then a gull lifted into the air, jinking as it hovered and calling its annoyance with the weather. Hell of a day for flying.
A hell of a month, all things considered. Ed and Al had passed through Paris on their way south, overnighting with an acquaintance from Ed's Aero Club days. After regaling Al with anecdotes (most of them at Ed's expense), Jean-Paul had mentioned the rumors that Robert Goddard had successfully launched a liquid-fueled rocket. Some said it had traveled five hundred meters straight up—Ed was more inclined to believe fifty. There had been no word from the engineer himself, however; the drubbing he had taken in the American press over his advocacy of space-flight had soured him on public announcements. Il a besoin d'un peau plus dure, Jean-Paul had said, shrugging.
Ed shook his head, pulling his feet up to sit tailor-fashion on the rock. Fifty meters. That's nothing to what yours did, Alfons. But there had been no public announcement of his achievement, either, and no follow-up experiments—Ed and Al had made sure of that.
And Alfons is dead.
That wound still ached when the wind changed, scarred over but not fully healed. Ed never spoke to Al about his double; he didn't want his brother comparing himself to Alfons or worrying that the other boy's death had somehow paid Al's passage through the Gate. When the past ambushed him, Ed wrestled with it alone and blamed his malaise on hunger or exhaustion or homesickness (always worst when they were on the run). Maybe I need a thicker skin.
Scottie shrieked and Ed's attention snapped back to her. She had been poking and slashing at the incoming waves with her stick, a miniature musketeer, but one had gotten past her guard, breaking over her toes as she danced backward. "Scottie!" he called, and when she wheeled to face him, he gestured her away from the water.
She mistook his meaning and sprinted toward him, stumbling as she crossed the tide-line into the loose sand. Ed hopped down off the stone just in time to prevent her from smashing into it face-first when her ankle turned, pitching her forward. "Careful!" he scolded, hauling her upright by the armpits. "And keep your feet dry—I don't want your nanny yelling at me—"
He broke off when he saw her staring wide-eyed at his right hand; too late, he remembered shucking his gloves when he'd first sat down. "What's that?" she whispered.
Ed was used to this reaction from both adults and children in this world, though he seldom revealed his automail so carelessly anymore. He had found that the best way to stifle curiosity was to exhaust it; few people had the medical or technical expertise to appreciate how extraordinary his prosthetics were. "It's my hand," he said. "It's just like yours, only it's made out of metal." He held it out for her to see.
Scottie took it in both of her own, dropping the stick. She traced a line around the screws behind his knuckles, then bent his fingers back and forth, comparing his joints with hers. "Does it wind up with a key?" she asked.
He wondered if she wanted to be an engineer when she grew up. Women's careers were still bizarrely limited by convention in Europe, but perhaps in fifteen years that would have changed. "No, it works by itself, like a real hand."
"Tik-Tok winds up like a watch." She tilted her head to study his face. "But you don't talk like Tik-Tok."
"Who's Tik-Tok?" he asked, gently disengaging his fingers from hers.
Scottie looked shocked. "You don't know?"
Glad of the distraction, Ed pulled his gloves from his coat pocket and drew them on. "No, I'm afraid not," he replied. "You'll have to tell me."
"Tik-Tok is a character in the Oz books." She regarded him suspiciously. "Have you read the Oz books, M'sieur Edward?"
"No," he admitted.
Scottie heaved a loud sigh. "Are you an illiterate, M'sieur Edward?"
Ed choked off a laugh. Congratulations, kid—no one's ever accused me of that before. He wouldn't have offended her for the world, but it was hard not to grin when only yesterday Al had threatened to restart their old who's-read-the-most-books competition if Ed didn't stop underestimating his brother's cultural competence. "No, no," he assured Scottie. "I just don't have much time for stories."
"The Oz books are very good stories," Scottie opined. From the prim set of her mouth, she wasn't convinced by his denial, but had politely decided not to contradict him. "You should take the time to read them."
"I will," he said solemnly. "Now, tell me about Tik-Tok."
She complied, happy to fill in this gap in his education. Tik-Tok, Ed gathered, was an automaton, able to think, speak and move as long as the mechanism that powered each function was fully wound. He was quite clever, but had no feelings and spoke in a monotone (Ed suppressed another snicker as Scottie de-mon-stra-ted; had their conversation continued in French, no doubt she would have found the resemblance between him and Tik-Tok even more pronounced). Despite these drawbacks, he was a great help to Dorothy, a girl from the American state of Kansas, on her adventures in the Land of Oz and its neighboring countries, as when they rescued the royal family of Ev from the evil Nome King.
Ed found himself intrigued. In Scottie's clear and well-organized resumé—if not an engineer, then a journalist—the Oz books appeared to cross fairy tale with science fiction, lacing the whole with a satirical wit evident in items like Tik-Tok's label, which the girl recited for him from memory: "'Smith and Tinker's Patent Double-Action Extra-Responsive MECHANICAL MAN, Fitted With Our Special Clock-Work Attachment—Thinks, Speaks, Acts and Does Everything But Live. Manufactured Only at Our Works at Evna, Land of Ev. All Infringements Will Be Promptly Prosecuted According to Law.'" He wasn't at all sorry he had promised to read the stories, although by the time Scottie finished he thought he'd hardly need to do more than skim Ozma of Oz. "Whew!" he said. "Dorothy was lucky to get away from the Nome King in one piece. Do she and her uncle go back to Kansas after their trip to Australia?"
"Oh, yes, but they don't stay there. Dorothy returns to Oz many times and then brings Uncle Henry and Aunt Em to live there with her. Shall I tell you that story, too, m'sieur?"
"Not right now." The wind had dropped during Scottie's lecture, allowing the saline damp to settle over them like wet wool. Ed regretted not bringing a hat to pull down over his cold ears and Scottie, too, had begun to shiver, though she tried to disguise it by keeping her hands in her pockets and shifting from foot to foot. Time to leave, ready or not. "See how the clouds are getting darker? It's going to rain. I'll walk you home."
He braced for tears when she drooped, but she was only bending down to retrieve her driftwood sword. "C'est bien ça," she sighed. "I'll bring my stick to help us to the top." She held out her left hand to him and with only the slightest of hesitations he took it in his right.
They crossed the beach side by side, heads similarly ducked into their collars against the chill. To climb the path required them to walk in single file, but Scottie simply transferred Ed's hand to her shoulder when she took the lead. With each thrust of her stick into the ground the joint bobbed under his fingers like a buoy. Ed kept his grip light, although more than once he wished for a stick of his own or his companion's lower center of gravity (yes, Al, I admit the advantage of being small—just this once). Some things automail didn't make any easier. He considered Tik-Tok again, automail even to his brain: a creature animated by thought alone, without sense or feeling. A strange conceit ... on a day like today, perhaps also an enviable one—
No. Never that.
New guise for an old temptation, but he still recognized the trap. He could deny his feelings, refuse to mourn, refuse to care—but then how could he love his brother or worry whether Scottie fell into the sea and drowned? Those books have it right. That's everything but living—which is nothing. Ed looked down at the top of Scottie's head and smiled his defiance. I choose to live.
They paused at the crest for breath and Ed glanced back at the view. He had no doubt it was supposed to be spectacular—no one built a villa overlooking anything else—but with the rain closing in there was little to see except the wrinkled water and the pale arms of the cliffs embracing the cove. Ahead, the path ended at a weathered wooden gate in a box hedge, beyond which lay a well-tended lawn and garden. The villa itself sat on the headland's eastern spur, quite close to the edge: a terrace stretched across the intervening yards to a low balustrade Ed wouldn't have trusted to keep a drunken adult or a careless child from tumbling to her death. I can't believe they let her out alone.
He caught his charge by the shoulder again before she could dart away home. Oh, no, you don't! "Would you do me a favor, Scottie?" he asked, as much to maintain their alliance the rest of the way to her doorstep as anything else. "Promise me you won't tell anyone about my hand. I don't like it when people talk about it." And it is a little too conspicuous for our new low profile.
Scottie thought about that for a few seconds; then she offered him her own right hand. "I promise—if you promise not to tell anyone where we've been."
"Agreed," Ed said, and they shook on it.
A conspiracy now, they tip-toed through the gate and ducked behind a mimosa to which a few dying clusters of yellow blossom still clung. Ed sacrificed a handkerchief to clean the sand from their shoes, her stockings and his pant cuffs. "So," he asked as they peered at the house around the edge of the bush, "where've we been, if not the beach—uh, oh."
A tall woman in a plain, dark dress had thrust open the villa's back door and marched down the steps to the terrace. As her gaze swept over the garden, Ed froze, but Scottie wriggled deeper into the mimosa, seeking cover but succeeding only in waving its fern-leafed branches like so many tattered pennants. You've still got a few things to learn about sneaking around—thank goodness. "The jig's up," he said, watching the woman stalk across the lawn straight toward their hiding place. "And this would be—?"
"Nanny," said Scottie without enthusiasm, extracting herself from the bush. She eyed him nervously. "Remember, M'sieur Edward, you promised—"
And then Nanny was upon them, sharp-voiced with a relief her stern face could not hide, alternating between English for Scottie (there you are, little madam, and where have you been, leaving without a word and bothering a perfect stranger) and stilted French for Ed (je vous remercie beaucoup, monsieur, pour escorter la petite chez nous; j'espère qu'elle ne vous ait pas déranger). He smiled and made deprecatory gestures and repeated "De rien" and "Pas de quoi" at appropriate intervals until she ran down. The awkward pause that followed broke when Nanny began to fuss over the fronds caught in Scottie's hair and Ed belatedly recognized his cue to leave. He bowed, retreating a step, and with an austere nod in return Nanny took the girl by the hand and hustled her away. "Adieu, Scottie!" Ed called after them.
Scottie looked back over her shoulder and waved with the arm not in the custody of her nurse. "Adieu!" she shouted. When Nanny halted to allow the girl to complete her good-bye, Scottie's face brightened with mischief. "Adieu, M'sieur Tik-Tok!"
Ed blew her a raspberry, making her giggle and scandalizing her guardian. He bowed again and departed, cutting across the lawn past the villa's western facade. It certainly was an elegant building, three stories tall and pleasantly proportioned. The spreading tops of parasol pines shaded its walls; climbing roses threaded their runners through its ironwork. Ed hoped for Scottie's sake the house was as pleasant inside as out. At least she hadn't been afraid of her nanny, and the woman, though flustered, had been judicious in her chiding. Still, he thought he might wander this way now and again while he and Al remained in the neighborhood—just in case Scottie took it into her head to go searching for the road to Oz.
He crunched onto the gravel drive as the first raindrops began to fall, paying little heed to either change. He was recalling Scottie's description of the Oz books and wondering whether Al would enjoy them, too. I bet he would—hungry tigers and cowardly lions are right up his street. Books were expensive, but for once money wasn't tight: Ed's winnings at the casino had covered the cost of their lodgings for the next week and he hadn't even had to cheat yet. No, the real difficulty would be finding copies. Saint-Raphaël had a news-agent but no proper libraire—a trip to Cannes might be in order, although Al would almost certainly insist on coming along and Ed had already decided that he wanted this purchase to be a surprise. Perhaps he could decoy his brother away from the bookshop with another errand or engross him in the contents of one aisle while he himself searched the others ...
Plotting happily, Ed turned up the collar of his coat against the drizzle and hurried homeward.