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A Questionable Affair
"Damn it, Winston, I know him! The resemblance is so striking!"
The gentleman slammed his fist against the bulkhead, the movement rattling the cramped cabin.
Winston Ainsworth, his jowls lumbering, offered a tiny smile towards the speaker. His tweed clung to his curves in the heat, and sweat trickled down his brow in small rivulets. "Owen, there will be time for that later. It's getting late, and well . . . I'm famished."
The recipient of Ainsworth’s grin was younger, taller, and normally composed. Owen Ward felt drained; the Irishman's every breath clung to his throat, garroting him. Ward's eyes returned from their distant and unfocused gazing to fall on Ainsworth's corpulent face. "Ha!" he barked. "Ever a man of practicalities. Fine. You lead then."
Exiting the stateroom, the men ambled toward the airship's bar. The establishment was seedier than the dirigible's great dining room, but Ward enjoyed the shadier locales of life; tonight, a shroud of cigar-smoke and a touch of port would be a wonderful accompaniment to dinner. Given Ainsworth's hunger, Ward thought the man would enjoy the Steamed Cloud's portions as well.
As they passed each of the hallway's ports, Ward could not resist looking; he never tired of air-travel. The Questionable had been christened in '57, only two decades earlier, and Ward was proudly riding Queen Victoria's favorite ship. Bars, fancy restaurants, theatrical shows, gambling houses, and other entertainments were available for the airship's clientele, and Ward had traveled aboard the Questionable several times as she traversed the globe, striding among the clouds to the various regions of the Empire.
On this particular occasion, the Irishman and his friend were returning from the Cape Colony en route to Dublin. Although mundane investments had taken them to Africa initially, the two had managed to enjoy their business trip. The lengthy excursion allowed for the pair to reminisce about past adventures and plan for future ones.
Yet even with the distraction of a looming, enjoyable meal, Ward could not escape his current predicament. If he was right, the consequences would be grave, not that it would change anything. Ward's hand had been forced, and he would act like the gentleman he was. Raised amid the hills of Ireland, he had come to enjoy the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of the upper class. One uncompromising responsibility was the absolute necessity to answer for insults. Yes, Ward would act.
Ainsworth bustled ahead of his companion, apparently forgetting his friend's troubles in light of his own hunger. Chuckling to himself, Ward followed in the portly man's wake. They sauntered along the paneled and steel-reinforced hallways for some time until the passage finally came to the dirigible's great hall. The space held the gambling house, the Steamed Cloud bar, and Chez Mattieu, the vessel's classier eatery. Truly the great hall was a feat of engineering in itself. It was the largest open space on the vessel, and it served as the central hub of the ship; many passengers gathered in its expanse to watch the crowd or find other entertainments to pass the time. Finally Ainsworth noticed Ward wasn't keeping pace, and he turned around to see what the lagging was about.
As Ward lengthened his stride to match Ainsworth, the larger man spoke. "Seems a bit busier tonight than last," he offered.
Ward grunted in agreement but made no other reply. Instead, he continued his search, his eyes dancing from face to face across the great hall. His glance tracked each mustache's cut as he sought a glimpse of the face, haunting in its familiarity. As he'd suspected, he finally glimpsed the man sitting at a table in the gambling house. That was where the two had met, and Ward had been confident that his opponent would return to his cards. He was not mistaken.
Ainsworth continued unawares and in a rush. "Yes, it's busy alright. But hopefully that won't delay our meal. You mentioned that the Steamed Cloud would be most accept—"
"Our friend has returned this evening," said the Irishman.
The color drained from Ainsworth's face as he glanced around the room. Finally, he too caught sight of the gambling man. "Well there's nothing for that; we just need to watch him and avoid interaction until his seconds arrive. Now Owen, please, let's eat; there's been far too many interruptions this evening . . . Oh for pity's sake!" The last exclamation was offered in exasperation as another interruption presented itself.
Two nobly clad men were approaching Ward and Ainsworth purposefully. One possessed a prosthetic arm whose gears could easily be heard and the mechanical limb swayed in affected life-like movement. The brassy color of his arm contrasted darkly with his scarlet suit. His companion was a short, broad-shouldered fellow sporting Opticior goggles designed to improve vision. Ward had seen similar models several times, but glancing at the lenses' machinery, he guessed that only the richest of customers could afford the version this man sported. It seemed their mysterious antagonist possessed wealthy companions.
"Which of you is Winston Ainsworth?" spoke the scarlet-clad leader after glancing at a personal calling card.
"Indeed. You're still willing to act as Mr. Ward's second?"
"I am, sir. I'd ask for several minutes of your time to discuss particulars," Ainsworth spoke formally.
This time, the goggled fellow answered. "That's why Mr. Fletcher sent us." Instantly, Ward took in a sudden, sharp breath of air. Ignoring the disturbance, the shorter man continued. "If your friend would excuse us, such matters can easily be determined." Nodding pointedly at Ward, the two men strode off, expecting Ainsworth to follow. After exchanging a few keen words with Ward, the man complied despite his hunger.
The name changed everything, and yet, it couldn't affect anything. What had occurred was already in the past, a past so quickly gone. The insult that would shape Ward's life had only been offered the night before.
The previous evening, Ward and Ainsworth had adjourned from Chez Henri, nourished and slightly tipsy, having consumed more Grecian wine than might have been appropriate. Instead of retiring to their stateroom, as was probably advisable, the two wandered over toward the gambling tables. Once there, the pair had sat among several other patrons. Laughing boisterously, Ward had begun to bet on the cards. The variant of chance, poker, had been imported from America, and its novelty was just enough to be wildly engaging. As such, Ward began placing large bets. Surprisingly, his luck held, and the man began collecting even larger winnings.
The night's fortune didn't hold. A haggard, yet finely dressed man entered the game. Immediately, Ward had sensed something was wrong, despite his tipsy and adrenaline-induced stupor. Something was decidedly familiar about the newcomer. His face possessed an almost effeminate, curving quality that Ward knew inch by inch, almost as if he had traced the man's jaw in a portrait. Yet even as he was studying the newcomer, Ward was in turn being examined.
After three or four more hands, the familiar-faced man laid down his losing cards and stood. Ward expected him to walk away, his familiarity fading with the exit. On the contrary, the man walked around the table and stood over Ward's chair. Glancing up, and despite his inhibitions, Ward could glimpse the rage present in the man's glowing eyes.
"Damn Micks just can't keep from cheating, can you?"
Ward was too shocked to respond, but the challenge needed a rebuttal and soon. Others around the table began to look suspiciously in Ward's direction. Breathing quietly to avoid throttling the man, the Irishman stood. "How dare you?" he hissed, his lips pressed together.
His newfound opponent only shrugged and silently indicated Ward's pile of winnings.
"Bastard," spat Ward.
The next moment was a blur of movement. The other man moved fast. In a fluid, single action, he threw out a hand, striking Ward across the face. The latter, a trained boxer, stopped himself from blocking the hit and punching the drunkard in the chest, but only just. Stopping the blow would not have stopped the insult. His face stinging, Ward breathed again. He'd kill the man later, and it'd be more satisfactory.
Such a blow was
utterly unforgivable. Society called for blood. The two men had left, inflamed, and promises were made for imminent satisfaction. Tempers had been so heated that names had not even been exchanged. Rationally, Ainsworth had quietly talked with a friend accompanying Fletcher. This man proved to be Fletcher's second. The two friends of the combatants had arranged for a future meeting.
Now, as Ainsworth walked away with the scarlet-suited figure, Ward felt himself drowning in a cloud of trepidation. He now recognized the resemblance. The name connected his memory to his observations.
Fletcher: a man whom he must save.
Fletcher: a man whose very actions had sentenced himself to death.
The contrast was maddening, but there would be no escape from the quandary. Society made no exceptions; a duel would occur.
All appetite gone, Ward turned and left the grand hall. Instead of retreating back toward the stateroom, the man wandered the corridors, his eyes reflecting the dull brass and iridescent silver adorning the walls. Out the viewports, the sun continued its slow descent. For their part, the clouds rose up like waves, engulfing the burning orb.
The man wandered toward the observation deck that graced the rear of the airship. Ward finally came to the circular room after traveling down several sets of winding stairs. The deck’s walls were sheer glass, and several comfortable chairs had been placed facing the view. Tranquility was embodied within the room's clutches, and many a passenger had willingly been taken in by the observation deck's allure.
Ward allowed himself to unwind. Ainsworth knew exactly how the Irishman proposed for the duel to take place. He was the challenged, so the terms of the duel were left to his discretion. Ward sunk deeper into the chair, relaxing as fate began to take its course. On the celestial stage, the sun finally lost its titanic battle; sagging downward, the burning sustainer of life bowed. Ward's eyes drooped, and the man lost his own battle to the night.
The morning found Ainsworth shaking him awake, a nervous expression clouding the larger man's face. "Good morning friend," he spoke.
Ward shifted amid the chair's folds and stretched. On the horizon, the sun was only just breaking the dawn; the time had come.
"Thank you Winston; I'd hoped you would know where to find me."
"Never easier Owen, given your patterns." Ward always escaped to the beauties of nature whenever something troubled him; Ireland had taught him well.
"Everything accounted for then?" asked Ward. Ainsworth nodded in return. Together and silently, the pair exited the observation deck.
The pair met only the crew of the Questionable as they passed through the eerie and deserted halls. They reached their state room. Ward changed his attire, washed his face, drank a small glass of brandy, and snatched up a walking cane. Then, striding back into the hallway, the men steered toward the great hall. Reaching the open expanse, neither of the pair was surprised to glimpse three others waiting for their arrival. Fletcher, the man with the mechanical arm, and the goggled fellow all lingered in the hall. Ainsworth placed a hand on Ward's shoulder, halting him. Next, the friend assumed the official air of the second. He walked forward alone and greeted Fletcher's friends. Pleasantries over, the men retreated to their respected sides of the hall.
The hall's center had been cleared of furniture. Marble tiles, previously hidden by tables and seating, were now visible. It seemed the airship's designers had specifically planned for affairs of honor. The marbled ground was ideal for a duel, and permission for the occasion had been surprisingly easy to obtain from the Questionable's captain; Ainsworth encountered no difficulties in that respect.
Ward began to unclasp his jacket. The pale grey leather slipped easily from his shoulders, the coat's long tails dripping toward the ground. Ward undid the top button of his white under-shirt. Finally, he rolled the sleeves of the ornate garment. It'd be easier to see the blood that way. Across the great hall, Fletcher was mirroring his own movements. This done, the two combatants strode forward. Passing Ainsworth, Ward retrieved his cane and grasped his friend's arm in solidarity.
Next, he withdrew a hidden rapier from the cane's innocent facade. The blade was elegant, perfectly balanced, and finely honed by a Hanoverian craftsman; it was a graceful tool of life and death. Fletcher possessed a similar weapon, a further indication of his opulent social standing. The two were equal — gentlemen of wealth and skill. Each locked eyes and stepped onto the frigid, uncaring marble tiles.
Outside, the sun crested the veiled sea of clouds.
Inside, the thrum of the dirigible's engines churned the air.
Two hearts beat in unison, and silvered steel crossed within a brass world.
* * * * *
Ward had collapsed again on the observation deck, a pen in hand, a paper present, and a soul grieving. Ainsworth and Fletcher's two friends waited nearby. They drank brandy despite the early hour, and no one talked. It seemed that not even spilt blood would quell the affair.
Yet, like a crystal dropping, a voice broke the silence, shattering the glass of solemnity. "Damn it, you know Ward," spoke the goggled second, "You might have let him kill you instead, given your relationship." He shook his head, draining his glass.
Sighing, Ward admitted that the thought had crossed his mind. "But I love her too much." He paused again. "I love my own life too much." Grasping all the power of his being, he lifted the pen — a weight far heavier than his crimsoned rapier — and wrote:
My loving wife, you almost never speak of Charles, your wayward brother. What you do say is saddened by his fall into gambling and drink. He missed our wedding, and your family ignores the topic completely. All the same, your undying affection is still apparent.
I found this prodigal son.
As fate would have it, I also killed him . . .
# # #
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