“Now then,” the Captain says cheerfully, when the Herald and Crewmember finally take themselves to the bridge, with not a little reluctance. “Now that we’re all here, would anyone have a good idea how to get an enigma out of Wisdom?”
“Wot a cheering start,” the Crewmember says (under their breath). “If this is what democracy’s like, long live the Traitor Empress.”
“A prison break,” the Student says. “It’s the classical solution. Send in a prisoner, rescue them afterwards, and we’re plus one enigma.”
“That means someone’s got to be a prisoner in there,” the Crewmember points out with a shudder. “No thanks.”
“Disguises?” the Innocent Spy suggests. “As Khanate agents or something, if that’s who runs the place. I’m pretty good at disguises.”
A distinctly unbelieving silence meets this remark.
“It’s just a little hard to imagine,” the Student says, with a gasp that a sympathetic witness might be able to interpret as a cough rather than strangulated laugher. “You being much good at being anybody other than yourself.”
The Innocent rolls his eyes and adopts a barbarically drawn-out drawl, which sounds nothing like his normal voice and also very, very silly. “You reckon? I figure I could set you straight on that, pardner. Why you ain’t even heard my genuine cowboy accent yet-”
“Please stop now,” the Herald implores. “The point isn’t sounding even more like some wretched Surface heathen, that’d be completely counterproductive. None of us have more than a passing acquaintance with the Khanate, so we could hardly pass ourselves off convincingly. Besides, the Clipper isn’t Khanate manufacture.”
“We could say it was a prize vessel, maybe? Captured in battle?”
“Not happening,” the Crewmember says. “Captains across the Underzee have standing orders not to let their ships be taken whole, you have no idea how absurd it is to try to capture one. People have an easier time fighting lorn-flukes- they have an easier time killing Mount Nomad, all right? We’d attract less attention by going in and surrendering ourselves all at once.”
“Now there’s an idea,” the Captain says conversationally. “Every one of you has committed offenses worth of being put away at some point. I have a good mind to sell the lot of you off as prisoners and finish the rest of this trip by myself. With the Innocent Spy, of course. He hasn’t done anything knowingly. Yet.”
“Now I know what I’ve done,” the Herald says, her manner equally unruffled. “But do enlighten us. Exactly how has everyone else offended your sensibilities?”
“Encouraging Seeking, encouraging desertion, lying about supplies…oh, all three of you have done quite enough against the zee-code to justify my actions.”
“I’d have to go with them, you know,” the Spy protests. “I’m much better at jail-breaking than any of them.”
The Herald studies him. “Exactly how many prisons have you escaped from?”
“I stopped keeping track after the first few years. Must be nearing triple digits.”
“I occasionally forget that you’re only comparatively innocent…nevertheless. Do you know, I’ve heard that Khanate guards like their prisoners to wear nice short haircuts. Though it may only be an evil rumour,” the Herald says casually.
The Innocent Spy blanches.
“I’m not insisting on a prison break,” the Student explains, with the air of someone prepared to continue pressing their point for however many iterations it takes to sink in. “But it’s cheaper than the other options. There’s no point in bribing the governor with a searing enigma to get a searing enigma.”
“And during these dashing prison escapes, the crew always get offed. Suppose I don’t fancy being killed today? It does get old after a while, you know.”
“Yeah, that’s not really fair,” the Innocent agrees. “But here’s a question. Is it that they only take prisoners who have searing enigmas, or is it just that easy to collect one once you’re inside?”
“It would have to be the latter,” the Captain says. “I assure you, the last mutineer I sold them had no searing enigma.”
“Wait, you- what- you’re not serious, are you?”
“He’s serious,” the Student says. “Don’t get him started-”
“Back when I was captaining my dreadnaught, and I stood down a hundred zailors in the Gossamer Way with nothing but nerve and a withered mushroom stalk-”
“He’ll be at this for hours now,” the Student says, while the Captain mumbles of lost glories and snufflers. “Any other ideas?”
“As I heard it, the prison has so many enigmas simply because of the abundance of knot-oracles here. Why don’t we cut out the middleman and go find ourselves a giant toad of our own?” the Herald asks.
“Because they can’t tell you what the enigma is unless they can talk to you, and I believe that requires them to eat someone. Of course we could just feed them the Crewmember-”
“No,” the Crewmember and Spy say simultaneously. The former shudders, theatrically but also convincingly.
The latter continues: “I’m the professional, so if there’s any mission impossible stuntwork to do, I’m the obvious candidate. Anyway it’ll be fun. I haven’t done any real Great Gaming in ages.”
“We’re talking about a prison. The most securely guarded one in the Underzee,” the Herald reminds him.
“So? Good practice. Wouldn’t want my escapology to go rusty.”
“Are you really any good at disguises?” the Crewmember asks curiously.
“Well- blending in, at least, that’s basic survival for a spy. You don’t think I bother being this erudite at home, do you? Only everyone’s so wordy down here.”
“I ‘ope you are not accusing me of an excess of education,” the Crewmember enunciates, in a fair imitation of the Student’s deep tones. They earn themselves one glare and chuckles from the others.
“No, I think the thing to do is cheat a little bit. What are chains made of around here?”
“And I just happen to have a device that attracts iron. If we got enough chains together, really heavy ones, we might be getting somewhere.”
“What’s it for, extracting blood? And how does that help us?” the Student inquires.
The Spy winces. “I hadn’t thought of that either.”
“That contraption is more trouble than it’s worth. I say we zail on and find an enigma somewhere more hospitable.”
“And I say we don’t,” the Student protests, with the sort of genuine anger in his voice that doesn’t usually enter into the Clipper’s little domestic quarrels. “We know there’s an enigma here, we’ve been trying to get more of them for months, and now we finally have a practical lead you want to leave?”
“As long as I rig up a timer so nobody’s actually near the thing when I set it off…” the Spy muses. “And maybe put a sign on it telling people not to go too close.”
“That would attract the attention of almost any self-respecting Neath resident,” the Herald points out.
“Well. I can’t be responsible for that, can I? And probably I’d need a cell to myself. How would I get into solitary?”
“Prudence,” the Captain says abruptly, from his attempts to recall the name of that exquisite restaurant in Venderbight (his memories have strayed from the point somewhat). “For the worst criminals only. Red honey smugglers, practitioners of the Red Science...people with long records. The Khanate sends their Seekers there, I believe.”
“You’re going to pretend to be a Seeker.” The Crewmember’s tone is flat with disgust.
“Sure, I can fake my way through that one no problem. Now, we’re gonna need a signal of some kind...”
The White-and-Gold intelligence officer tasked with reading the Nuppmiddt reports is fully aware that her colleagues regard her job as rather a joke (and this in a sea where monkey bickerings count as “strategic information”). Wisdom has long since broken away from Khanate control; there is very little that anyone from Khan’s Heart can do these days to influence them, or even acquire some of the delicious secrets reputed to infest those waters.
Still, Wisdom running itself is preferable to having the place under anyone else’s control. That makes it a tolerable situation for now.
And at least they do keep sending their reports…she opens the sealing wax with a flick of the knife, noting the missive’s singular thickness. The writing doesn’t feature the feathery loopiness characteristic of the Governor’s hand. Someone has composed it in copperplate, very tight, very grasping. The latest attache, if she isn’t much mistaken - what was his name again? She scans the letter, looking for fruitful phrases amongst the flowery prose.
…such as this very intelligence being too much neglected. I fear that such shoddy carelessness may extend into other arenas. Naturally, in the event of the Governor becoming too incapacitated for further duties, I would regretfully take the liberty of handling his responsibilities myself…
In-fighting at Wisdom. An ambitious man, the Affable Fellow.
“Now this,” the officer murmurs, “should be very entertaining indeed.”