Jennifer Rose-Marie Lewis had been captain of her own airship since she was 19 years old.
She had run away from her stifling life and arranged marriage to an insufferable wanker with a fairly hefty amount of her father's credits. And who else to have escaped with her than her twin sister, Claudia? They had been inseparable as children, and despite the distance forced between them by their parents' dissolving marriage and subsequent separation, they were still each other's closest friend. Their airship was certainly not one for Her Majesty's Royal Air Force, that was for certain. It was an older model, practically a relic, but one that held together through every sort of trial and tribulation without faltering. It had once been called the Arcana, but the years—and a well-thrown firebomb—had removed the last three letters. Jenny hadn't minded that a bit. She liked the old ship, its close passageways and hidden nooks, the rumble of its engines.
But no ship was ever complete without her crew. First to come was their first cousin and Jenny's first mate, Stephen Hart. Both Jenny and Claudia had been in shock when he strolled up to them with hands stuffed in his pockets, shaking his head. Apparently, he'd heard the story of their escape and had come to join them. It ran in their mother's side of the family, this habit of scarpering away from society's norm with rebellious audacity. Still, Stephen was a crack shot, and he made a good first mate. Abigail Maitland, a scruffy runaway from Yarmouth with a temper to be reckoned with, was the best pilot from Cornwall to Northumberland. Dr. Danny Quinn was a former surgeon—always wise to have a medical man aboard—with his wife, a doctor of a different sort. Sarah was in the study of astronomy and mythology. Such a thing had seemed trivial to Jenny at one time, but Sarah's knowledge of the stars had kept their way when the guidance systems faltered more than once. The final member of her crew was a man by name of Becker. She didn't know if it was his surname or not, he refused to say. He had once been a soldier, that she knew—there was that look in his eyes that only soldiers took on, the look of a man that had seen war. He knew more about weaponry than any man she knew, even Stephen, and at times, he seemed a little overly fond of his own personal arsenal. She was quite certain he named his weapons. He was their protection, and, oddly enough, quite good friends with Danny, a friendship she had yet to make sense of. As peculiar and mismatched as they all were, they still had their places on the ship.
A ship that, at the moment, was grounded in a less-than-sociable port on the fringes of the coast. The port engine had finally given way in a bout of smoke and steam, and not a one of them knew their elbow from their arse when it came to the mechanics of a steamship, much less one as old as Arc. Which was why Jenny was striding her way through the murkiness of the scraptowns that sprung up around ports. She hated scraptowns, made up of scrapyards, trading caravans, small shops, whorehouses, seedy dives, and cheap boardinghouses. They attracted all sorts of people, not all of them respectable. Most of them not respectable, actually. But they were quite firmly landlocked until she could get someone to fix her ship, and if nothing else, scraptowns were good for finding parts for repairs and mechanics to make them.
But therein lay another problem. Mechanics and repairs required money, a commodity they weren't too endowed with. Their last job hadn't played out as was expected, part of the reason the engine had gone in the first place—a well-aimed cannon was certain to strain any engine. And insofar, she had spoken to six different mechanics, none of whom were willing to work until she could show them their pay.
With a weary groan, she dropped down into a chair, tipped her head back, and draped an arm over her eyes.
"No luck, then?" asked Claudia softly.
"No," she replied shortly. "None of them are going to so much as touch a welder unless I can show them the colour of their cut first."
Becker poured a glass of liquor and slid it across the table towards her. "Not even the bloke from the Magnolia?"
Jenny gave a wry laugh as she downed the alcohol in one go. It burnt all the way down, the sharp, fiery taste lingering on the back of her tongue; it was some of Abby's homemade brew, strong enough to have a man grown staggering drunk after a pint. "Him? Oh, he offered to fix the engine, sure enough. Said I wouldn't have to pay him...in credits. And then proceeded to try and put his hand down my trousers," she replied.
"Wanker!" came Stephen's voice from across the table. "What'd you do to him?"
"What d'you think I did to him? I broke his hand and said I'd shoot his balls off if he tried it again," she replied.
Her cousin sat back in his chair with a small smile on his lips. "That's my girl."
"What are we going to do, then?" Claudia asked.
Jenny couldn't think of an answer to that. She was out of options. They had no money, no mechanic, and a broken airship. As her thoughts sank more and more towards the morose path, Danny approached the table, taking the empty chair besides his wife. "Jen, I've been asking around at the bar," he announced; no matter how many times she corrected him, he still called her Jen. "There's someone else we could ask. New bloke, comes from Londinium. Everyone I've talked to calls him the Engineer, and they've all said the same thing, that he's the best at fixing airships. He's set up in the scrapyard on Edgerton. You might give him a try."
She couldn't imagine that this Engineer would be any different from the other six she had tried...but on the other hand, mechanics from Londinium did know their trade better than most. Perhaps she might be able to actually get somewhere. "Right, then. I guess I will have to give the Engineer a shot. Haven't got much choice otherwise, hm?" Taking another hasty swallow of the home-brewed liquor, she stood up and left the dive in the direction of Edgerton.
No two mechanics had workshops alike, but this one had to be the most unusual she had ever seen in her life. There were pieces of metal twisted into shapes she couldn't make heads or tails of, small model zeppelins no bigger than her fist, figures made entirely of metal, all sorts of bits and bobs and odds and ends strewn everywhere. There were no windows she could see, but it was still decently lit. Brightly polished bits of scrap dangled from the low roof on strings, reflecting the lamplight in splashes of illumination. Books were scattered along shelves, stacked in precarious piles with papers covered in scribbled writings; one wall was covered with all sorts of schematics and design plans. In the centre of the shop was a large engine—at least, what she thought was an engine; she couldn't honestly be sure—with a pair of boots protruding from beneath it. Also coming from beneath the machine was a string of what could be presumed curses in gruff, gutter Gaelic.
Jenny cleared her throat loudly.
There was a loud clang followed by an equally loud curse, then a man was pulling himself up to his feet, pulling free of the machine. Once on his feet, he pushed a pair of welding goggles back on his head, causing his hair to stand up in all peculiar directions. He looked to be about Jenny's age, perhaps a few years older, wearing unremarkable trousers and a shirt, both stained beyond repair by soot, oil, and grease, and leather gloves that came up to the elbow. As for his face, it was hard to tell much about what he looked like, given that he was covered with a layer of soot himself; she wasn't entirely certain what colour his hair was, either. "May I help you?" he asked, his voice rough and thick with a positively brutal Scottish burr.
"You're...the Engineer?" she queried hesitantly.
The corner of his mouth curved up in a small grin. "Aye."
"My ship is in need of repair," Jenny replied, deciding to cut right to the quick of it. After the incident with the Magnolia mechanic, her patience was nonexistent.
"Aye, I gathered that. I doubt you'd come visit a mechanic in a scrapyard otherwise. So, lass, would you mind being just a tad more specific?" he prompted, bracing both hands on the machine. The bracings holding it up creaked warning, and he snatched his hands back.
"I'm not your lass," she spat, bristling. "I'm Captain Lewis, my ship's blown the port engine, and my crew and I are grounded until it's repaired. Can you fix it or not?"
Nick Cutter had been known as the Engineer for the past eight years of his life. He rarely ever gave his name anymore, as all it did was raise eyebrows and draw attention that he most desperately avoided. Today, he could count on one hand how many people actually knew his name, including his mam. He'd left Londinium and the Central Metropolitan docks to start a new life, and he had yet to regret it for a moment. The life of a trade mechanic was not an easy one. He had forgone meals more than once, as well as slept outside when need had it, but it was still better than the life he once had. And this way, he could work with his beloved machines as much as he liked. He loved, more than anything, to take things apart and see how they ticked, how all the little gears and pulleys worked in unison, then to put them back together again, to rebuild what had been broken, to remake the new from the old. And in those eight years, he had met just about every sort imaginable and some that were quite unimaginable as well.
But this was a sight that was quite new to him.
Standing in front of him was a fine young lass dressed in the hardy proofing of a proper skydog. A floor-length longcoat in midnight blue, lighter blue jackcoat underneath, corset and white shirt tucked into a pair of black trousers, a holster strapped to her thigh, spare ammo on her belt, tall black boots, and a scarf tied about her neck. An aviator's pin, a set of winged gears with a propeller, was set on her lapel, but she was definitely not RAF. She wasn't any common aviator, either. The way she held herself, the fine-boned features of her face, the defiant tilt of her chin...no, this little lass was from somewhere higher up, the sort to be found in Londinium's finest. Seems he wasn't the only one on the run from a past life. Captain Lewis, eh? I wonder, is that your true name, or are you hiding yourself?
"Well, Engineer?" she snapped. "Can you repair my ship or not?"
Definitely upper-class, he thought, listening to the way she pronounced her vowels. No lowborn spoke that well. "I'd have to see it first," he answered, pulling his gloves off and tucking them into his belt. "And then I'd have to see if I got parts for it and how much it'd cost to fix."
She shifted her weight slightly at that. "Right, well, on the subject of payment..."
"You don't have any, do you?" Nick asked.
Jenny gritted her teeth. Jacksmoke. He was sharper than he looked. Then again, he looked like an imbecile. "Not at the moment, no. Our previous employer backed out of our agreement, refused to pay what he promised. We...disagreed," she replied reluctantly.
"Hence the blown engine," the Engineer said.
"Hence the blown engine," Jenny agreed.
The Engineer huffed quietly, then ran one hand over his hair, making it stand up in even more erratic spikes than before until he looked for all the world like an extremely ruffled hedgepig. "Alright...here, I'll make you a deal," he said at last.
Her hand went to the butt of her pistol. "What sort of deal?"
His eyes didn't miss that slight movement, and the corner of his mouth twisted up in that small smile again. "Not that sort of deal. No, I've been stuck here for far too long, but I don't have the means to leave. I'll fix your ship, and you give me passage to somewhere other than this bloody place. You are a passenger ship, I'll wager?"
Slowly, she moved her hand away from her pistol. "At times, yes." They did all sorts of jobs. Transport, passengers, even a few that were less than entirely legal. "So that's it, then? I give you passage, you'll fix my engine?" she clarified.
"Aye, that's it. What d'you say, Captain Lewis?"
She eyed him up closely for a long moment, then sighed. She didn't particularly want to take him anywhere, but if that's what it took... "I'd say you have yourself an agreement, Engineer. I'll see you at Dock Six tomorrow at nine." She offered him one hand, and he shook it firmly. As she turned towards the door, she paused and glanced back at him. He'd already pulled his gloves back on and had picked up a soldering iron. "They call you the Engineer. What's your real name?" she asked.
He looked back up at her. The small smile returned, but now there was something decidedly melancholy to it. "Some questions are best left unanswered, Captain Lewis. I'll see you at the docks tomorrow," he answered.
Nick arrived at the docks early for two reasons. One, he hadn't wanted to give Captain Lewis any reason to dislike him. Be it any other situation, he wouldn't give a flying skive of what she thought of him, but she was his transport out of this grimy pit. Two, he'd wanted to get a look at the ship he was meant to fix beforehand, see if it was a repair or a rebuild, as was often the case in blown engines.
"Oh, you beauty," he murmured to himself, walking along the edge of the dock.
The Arc—if the scorch marks beside the letters were any indication, that was not her original name—was a Spino-class airship, a model that had been discontinued before he was born, so named for its tall, ribbed sails. They were large and somewhat bulky as well, but they could last through the ages and take almost any punishment without buckling. Her port engine had one hell of a gouge down her side, but nothing that couldn't be fixed by welding on a few new plates. No, the real damage lay inside the engine, where the impact had no doubt shaken her rough.
As he was thinking about what he could do with engines like those, all that he could learn and build, see if he couldn't make her engines sing to him, a pair of hands covered his eyes from behind. Hands wearing fingerless gloves. "Guess who I am?"
"Connor! The buggering hell are you doing here?" Nick demanded, turning around.
Scruffy and unkempt, Connor Temple looked even worse than he had the last time Nick saw him, thin and wan, dark shadows under his eyes, his clothes even more bedraggled than normal. He shoved both hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet. "Nothin', I was just...around," he answered, head down, hair straggling in his face.
"The hell you were—what happened to your face?" He reached out and pushed back the unwashed strings of dark hair that fell in Connor's face, a hiss of air escaping through his teeth at the sight of the dark bruising on his jaw and cheekbone, what he had mistaken for shadows actually a black eye. Just below his hairline was a nasty cut that'd scabbed over ugly black. "Who did this to you? Hm? Who did this to you?" Nick demanded, though he had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that he already knew.
Connor sighed as he pulled away, allowing his dark hair to fall forward and partially obscure the bruises. "That's sort of why I'm here," he mumbled. "I...I can't stay here anymore. It's gotten worse. I heard you were leavin', an'..." He bowed his head again, shrugging. "Never mind, doesn't matter."
"Jacksmoke," Nick muttered quietly. "Of course you can come with me. You didn't have to ask." The young man's eyes went almost comically wide before he grinned and lurched forward to hug Nick tightly, yammering excitedly in his ear. "Yeah, easy now. Don't hurt yourself," he said, extricating the young man and holding him at arm's length. "I'll have you know, though, the bird that's hired me on isn't exactly the friendliest of people. Might not take too kindly to you."
Just then, he heard a familiar cool, clipped voice approaching from the direction of the walk. "Engineer, you're here early."
Jenny arrived at Dock Six with ten minutes to spare, Stephen and Claudia both with her, only to see the Engineer already standing near the Arc with a younger man standing near him. He was dressed much like he was last night, his clothes unremarkable and permanently covered with the stains of his trade, goggles hung 'round his neck and gloves tucked into his belt. She was still no closer to figuring out what colour his hair was under the soot. She was beginning to wonder whether or not it was permanently fixed to him. "Who's this then?" she asked, gaze moving to the street urchin that stood near the mechanic.
He was definitely young, probably about Abby's age, with unkempt black hair that straggled down around his face, wearing clothes that were all too big, didn't match in the slightest, and were on the verge of falling apart, including a faded scarf around his neck and careworn gloves lacking the fingers. Warm dark eyes looked back at her, but with a strange flicker of darkness in their depths.
"This is Connor. He's my apprentice," replied the Engineer. "Fixing a blown engine is a two-man job, especially on a ship like this one." He nodded towards Arc. "I trust it won't be a problem, taking him with us?"
Jenny gritted her teeth and counted backwards from twenty by threes. Skive. "Not at all," she replied at last, voice tight. "This is Stephen Hart, my first mate, and this is Claudia, my sister."
"Well, it's good to meet you both. So, Captain, might we be allowed to view our patient now?" he asked, reaching down to pick up the bag that'd sat unnoticed by his feet; from the clanking noise it made, she'd peg it as tools.
"Yes. Sooner we get this done, the better. This way."
Nick was right. These old Spino ships, they were built to last. The cannon had only warped a few gears and valves. It took near a day to find all parts that would fit the engine proper-like, but with Connor's help—the boy was something like an apprentice, just as good with machines as himself—they had the Arc flight-ready. He hadn't been on an airship in so long that walking along the above deck as they flew was almost like coming home again, breathing air not tainted by the stink of a polluted scraptown, the only real noises being the ruffling flap of the sails, the quiet creaking of the ship itself, and the low thrum of her engines. It was dark already, and there was no one else on deck except the figure standing at the bow.
"Good evening, Captain," he said as he walked up beside her.
She startled slightly, gun hand twitching in the direction of her pistol. "Not a good idea, startling someone in the dark like that," she admonished before turning back to face the sky.
He leant both arms against the railing, near enough that his elbow almost brushed hers. "What's our course, then?"
"From here, it's to St-Nazaire, then to whatever job comes next," she replied. "Is France to your tastes, Engineer? Or will we be enjoying your company longer?" she asked dryly.
"Mm, perhaps a tad longer. I'm shite at French. Though I imagine it would be more to your tastes than mine, Lady Jennifer," he replied. She whipped about to stare at him so quickly that he was surprised she didn't hurt her neck, eyes wide and face pale. "You think I didn't know you? Mm, Lady Jennifer Lewis, eldest daughter of Geoffrey and Marianne Lewis, finest blueblood family in Londinium, ran away with a chunk of Daddy's money and her little sister in tow...now captain of her own airship with a patchwork crew. Now there's a story to bring home to Mummy."
The captain hissed through her teeth like a burnt cat. "Shut up. You don't know anything. And it's Jenny."
"I'm only saying. It's quite impressive, actually, that you've gotten so far. Not many would have been able to make it, spoilt rotten in Londinium the way they are."
She bristled at him, a rather fetching pink flush rising to her cheeks in her anger. "I said, stow it. Besides, who must you be, then, Engineer, to know so much about who I am and where I am from? Hey? Are you a runaway yourself? Some upstart that lost everything because you were a fool? Or were you cut off from your family's money, tinkering with machines instead of going to your etiquette classes like a good little boy?" she spat back vindictively.
Nick's hands tightened around the railing. Some upstart who lost everything because I was a fool...if only you knew, little lass. He gritted his teeth until it hurt, staring out into the darkness and—"What is that?"
"Don't you change the subject, you grimy tog, answer me," she snapped.
"No, Captain, what is that?" he repeated, pointing out into the darkness.
A good distance off starboard, barely visible amidst the fog that clung low to the surface of the sea like a sheet, were small yellow lights, like lanterns that were simply drifting out in the midst of the Biscay. Jenny stared at the lights hard for a moment, frowned, then reached into the pocket of her jackcoat for a small spyglass, peering down at the curious lights. All at once, her face went pale. "Skive. Quick now, run belowdeck and rouse the others. Now!" she ordered, dropping the spyglass and taking off at a run down the deck towards the helm.
"What is it? What's happened?" Nick demanded.
As soon as she spoke the word, the tremendous snarl of airship engines thundering to life split the still darkness, and the small lights below blazed, a ship pulling free of the fog like a monstrous butterfly from its chrysalis. For a moment, Nick stared, disbelieving. Raptor-class, modified engines, additional gun attachments, he thought, automatically taking in what he could about the ship. A tremendous flare of light briefly blinded him as a firebomb exploded on deck in a gout of flame; he dropped down the ladder more than he climbed down, the heat scalding even from where he was; he could smell the ends of his hair singeing. He hastened down the corridors towards the crew cabins.
Stephen was already awake, half-dressed and holding his gun. "The hell's going on? What was that noise?" the man demanded.
"Pirates," Nick replied. "Skiving pirates!"
The Arc suddenly lurched sideways, sending them both off-balanced into the wall. For a brief second, he almost thought they'd been hit, but it was Jenny at the helm, turning them away from the other airship. He heard the engines' low thrum become a roar as they picked up speed. Jenny wasn't going to even try to fight them. She knew better than to try her hand with pirates; she was going to try to outrun them. Nick could already tell it wouldn't work. Raptors were built for speed, and pirates modified their engines to go faster. Running wouldn't do them any good. "Wake the others, get them all up on deck," he told Stephen before running back the way he'd come, towards Jenny.
Another firebomb had gone off, so close that the metal of the ladder actually burnt as he scrambled back up, hastening up the steps towards the helm. "Jenny!"
"The hell are you doing up here, Engineer? Told you to wake the others," she spat through gritted teeth.
"Stephen's got them up now," he replied hastily, then barreled on. "We can't outrun them, they're going to catch us."
Her hands were white-knuckle tight on the controls. "And how would you know?"
"Because I got a good look at their ship. It's a Raptor-class, Captain Lewis, and you've run into pirates before, I'm certain. You know they modify their engines. We're not going to outrun them."
She let out a rather impressive string of curses, a few that he'd never even heard before. Just then, the others all spilled up abovedeck, Abby running straight for the helm. Jenny shifted aside for the diminutive girl without hesitation. "We can't outrun them, but at least try to keep us from getting hit," she ordered sharply. "Stephen, get on the chase gun, return fire. Becker, Quinn, you two get astern, cut their lines when they try to board, and Claudia, you with them. Sarah, get below to the radio, see if there's any other ship in range to help us. Engineer, you get below as well, see what you can't do for the engines. I'll not have a single skiving corsair set foot on my ship!"
Jennifer Rose-Marie Lewis had been captain of her own airship since she was 19 years old. She had encountered pirates thrice since then and had never been boarded.
And she'd be thrice damned if she was going to start now.
A firebomb exploded on the deck, so close that she had to tumble sideways to avoid being struck with the spray of white-hot shrapnel. The bastards had hotloaded their ammunition; clearly she was up against corsairs proper, not some green novice wet behind the ears. Shaking the ringing noise out of her ears, Jenny ascended the port shroud, hooked one arm through the cables, and took out her spyglass once more, staring up at the ship that lingered just behind her Arc like some terrible sprite. Raptor-class ships were smaller than hers, they'd have a lesser crew, but that didn't mean a damned thing when they had hotloaded firebombs, modified engines, and added guns. She could see them, dark shapes hastening along the prow, but also having to duck and scatter as Stephen fired the chaser at them, the others firing their rifles as well.
And just there, she could see the name of the airship, written in scarlet letters along the prow, like fresh blood: Prospero.
She very nearly lost grip on the shroud as the Arc suddenly lurched starboard, narrowly avoiding the volley of shots that passed so close Jenny could feel their wind against her back. Shoving the spyglass back in her jackcoat, she grabbed a line with both hands and dropped back to deck.
Her blood chilled at the unmistakable sound of snares being launched sounded, the hiss of cables being unwound too fast, the splintering crackle of hooks embedding themselves in the wood of the deck, the metallic screech as more scraped along the hull, catching in her plates and panels. A dozen snares stretched from the Prospero to her Arc, and even though Becker, Danny, and Claudia were already cutting the anchor wires, they weren't going to do it fast enough, and all of Abby's piloting couldn't get them free without tearing Arc apart. She drew her sword and ran astern.
As she came to stand between Claudia and Becker, another half-dozen snares launched, these aimed towards the prow, snaring on the mast and the rail, port and starboard, in the shrouds.
"Captain?" asked Becker, voice taut.
"Stand fast," she said sharply. "Let us see what they want, then we'll act. Abby! Halt the engines!" she shouted, the words almost painful to speak.
Abby didn't hesitate to stop the ship, setting them dead in the air. A moment later, the young woman was joining them on the stern, her expression one of mutinous fury, not towards Jenny but towards the pirates that dared harm their ship, their home. She wasn't much with gun or swordplay, but she held a heavy spanner in both hands.
The Prospero drifted in close portside, near enough that Jenny could see the faces of the crew, leaning over the bulwark, weapons trained on them. They all looked eerily alike, half-obscured in the darkness as they were, and it raised the fine hairs at her neck. "Well, then? Where's your captain?" she called loudly, voice carrying. "I want to speak to your captain."
"And who might you be, to demand anything?" asked a male voice from the opposing airship, one surprisingly well-spoken and cultured.
She adjusted the grip on her sword, flexing her hand around its hilt. "I am Captain Lewis of the Arc," she replied. "This is my ship you've attacked, and I demand to see your captain, so we might speak like reasonable persons."
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the low humming of the two airships' engines, and then a gangplank was dropped down to the bulwark, with sharp hooks on the end to keep it anchored in place. Jenny gritted her teeth so hard it hurt as footsteps crossed the stretch of wood before stepping down onto her ship. It was a man, middle-aged if the touches of silver at his temples and in his beard were anything to go by, wearing fine, hardy proofing, armed with a pistol and a long, curved cutlass. Behind him were two women, both dark-haired, dressed in similar proofing. The one to his right had cold blue eyes and carried a rifle. The one on his left had no gun at all, but more knives than could be counted, including one in hand that she was using to cut an apple into pieces. There was a look in her dark eyes that immediately set Jenny on edge. "Is this your entire crew?" asked the man.
"Who are you?" Jenny demanded.
One dark eyebrow lifted. "I am Philip Burton, captain of the Prospero. Is this your entire crew?" he repeated frostily.
"No," she replied through gritted teeth. "There are two belowdeck. They ought be coming up. Now, Captain, I'm certain that you and I could come to some sort of agreement."
The corners of his mouth twitched, but his eyes were cold. "I think it would be best to wait until all of your crew was present. We wouldn't want anyone getting hurt, do we?" The threat was clear in his voice, and Jenny gripped her sword hilt so tightly it hurt. Only a moment or so later, Sarah and the Engineer were both emerging from belowdeck. Sarah looked terrified, the Engineer mulishly stubborn and infuriated. "Ah, there we are. Please do come astern. Captain Lewis and I have some parleying to do, and you all ought to hear it," Burton called.
Sarah hastened to the arms of her husband, Danny gently stroking her hair with one large hand. The Engineer took one look at Jenny's sword, then met her eye. She gave the most infinitesimal shake of her head; he gritted his teeth but stayed silent, arms folded tightly across his chest. "Well, then, we are all here. What is it you want? We haven't much of anything in way of cargo or wealth, but I would be glad to give you whatever you wish in exchange for the safety of my crew," Jenny said in a tight voice.
"Very noble of you, but I am not after any money or cargo. I am after something quite...specific. I know, Captain Lewis, that you were given something. Something important. I'm certain you know what object I'm referring to." Burton leant in closer. "Give it to me, and I shall let you and your ship and crew go."
Jenny lifted her chin. "I respectfully decline."
His eyes went colder. "I will give you only this one chance to reconsider that answer, Captain, or I shall resort to other measures of persuasion."
"No," she replied firmly.
Almost faster than could be tracked by eye, the dark-eyed woman had pulled a knife from her belt and flung it across the deck. The Engineer staggered backwards with a soft grunt of pain, a low gasp escaping his mouth; the knife was buried in his shoulder all the way to the hilt, blood rapidly blooming across his shirt. Jenny barely bit back an utterance of horror; she might not get on with the Engineer, might not like him overmuch, but he was still part of her crew and her responsibility. Danny started to step towards the other man, but the blue-eyed woman pointed the rifle at his chest. Claudia and Stephen caught the Scotsman by the arms, carefully helping him down to the deck, Jenny's twin holding him up as their cousin attempted to staunch the bleeding with his scarf.
Burton looked back at her once more. "Well, Captain? How many more need shed blood before you see things my way?"
Torn, she looked back at her crew once more. She was captain, but that still gave her no right to simply sign their lives away. But they all had the same stubborn looks on their face, an understanding in their eyes. They had their mission, and none of them were going to give it up for some scoundrel of a corsair. Straightening up and lifting her chin once more, she faced the pirate. "I must say, on behalf of myself and my crew, with all due respect...fuck you."
The man's expression didn't change but for his eyes, which went dark and deadly. He took a step back and drew his pistol, pointing it at her chest. Even with her best proofing on, at close range, she'd still end up dead. "Very well, Captain Lewis—" Burton started to say, but then there was a terrible grinding screech of metal from the Prospero. The steely-haired man whirled about to look at his ship, the rest of his crew shifting anxiously. The Prospero shuddered, a visible shiver, and then with a splintering crrrack, black smoke belched out of the starboard engine, metal squealing in protest. The corsair ship lurched starboard, abruptly tilted at an awkward angle.
The moment Burton turned, Jenny lunged forward, as Becker and Abby both did. She tackled Burton 'round the middle, taking them both to the deck. Abby swung her spanner with both hands, throwing all her body weight into it. The solid metal caught the blue-eyed woman upside the head with a sound like an overripe melon being split; she dropped to the deck and didn't rise. Becker was wrestling with the dark-eyed woman, using his superior height and weight to keep that multitude of knives away from him. Jenny didn't have the advantage of weight or height against Burton, but she had the advantage of surprise. Hastily, she twisted his wrist hard, digging her fingers into pressure points until he was forced to drop the pistol, and she kicked it away.
A backhanded slap from Burton sent her reeling, the taste of blood in her mouth, and one of his hands wrapped around her throat. Abruptly, the Arc lurched as well, the airship protesting as the snare were pulled taut, sending the man off-balanced. She brought her knee up sharply into his groin, knocking him backwards. The Prospero was still listing starboard, her engine sputtering and coughing smoke, pulling Arc along with her. The sound of gunfire split the darkness as the gunmen aboard the corsair ship fired, but then the sounds of fighting halted the shots, shouts of men and women, the sharp sound of steel on steel. Jenny briefly spared a thought for whoever was aboard the Prospero but it fled as Burton regained his footing, gripped a fistful of her hair, and yanked her head back; her scalp seared with agony. He laid the edge of his cutlass against her throat. "Where is it?" he spat. "I know you have it, you dockside whore, now where is it?"
Jenny spat up at him. He recoiled, disgusted, then brought the cutlass towards her throat once more. She gritted her teeth to the point of pain, knowing she'd feel the cold death kiss of steel at her throat –
Burton let out a strangled cry of pain, the cutlass dropping from his hand, his grip on her hair loosening. Jenny kicked the blade away and hastily twisted free, rolling to her feet. The Engineer had taken the knife from his shoulder and stabbed Burton in the side with it, striking the other man low in the ribs. She kicked the pirate with all the force she could, catching him behind the knees and driving him to the deck, howling.
The Arc lurched upright once more as her crew and the mysterious folk aboard the Prospero cut the last of the anchor wires on the snares. Jenny fell back on her arse, off-balanced by the abrupt movement of the deck underfoot, and ended up sitting almost nose-to-nose with the Engineer. He was deathly pale beneath his layer of soot and grime, eyes slightly glassy. "Nick," he said abruptly. "My name is Nick."
Jenny could hardly believe he would tell her that now. Still, giddy on adrenalin, she let out a little laugh and replied, "Nice to meet you, Nick. Hell of a first day, eh?"
He laughed weakly, then groaned, head hanging low between his shoulders. The scarf that Stephen had bound around his shoulder as temporary bandaging was sodden with blood.
"Oh, skive. Danny! Over here!" she shouted, holding the bleeding Scotsman upright as Stephen tied Burton's hands behind his back. The red haired surgeon ran over, carrying his medkit on one shoulder, and she rose to her feet as he began tending to the Engineer—Nick.
Burton and the two women were both bound and gagged, their weapons taken. "Take them below. Lock them in the cargo hold," she ordered; Becker and Stephen began hauling the trio of pirates belowdeck. As she picked up her sword and pistol, the Prospero rose once more, her engines still sputtering but once more keeping her aloft, if a bit tilted to starboard. "Who's aboard?" she demanded, in no mood for games any longer.
"Hold fire, Captain Lewis!" called a familiar voice. Jenny almost dropped her pistol in surprise as none other than the little ragamuffin apprentice, Connor, appeared at the bulwark of the corsair ship, waving his arms. She had entirely forgotten about him. How the hell did he even get over there? "Hold fire, they're allies! They're on our side."
"Who exactly are they?" she demanded.
"Uhm, not quite sure as of yet, Captain. Haven't had time for any proper introductions. But there's a bloke here says he knows you. RAF captain, name of Ryan."
Ryan? Merciful God. She holstered her pistol and slid her sword home in its scabbard. "I'm coming aboard."
Connor Temple had done plenty of things he wasn't proud of in his twenty-three years of life. Not because he wanted to, of course, but because he had no other choice.
His father drank away most of their money, and what he didn't put into the bottle, he put into the cards. Soon enough, he owed far more credits than he could ever pay back, and he owed them to probably the most vicious of men—Joseph Wilder was a former soldier turned mercenary then turned crime lord with a terrible reputation for breaking the limbs of people that didn't pay him what they owed. His right-hand man and number one enforcer, Ethan Dobrowski, was a complete psychopath and the only person that could outdo Wilder in terms of sheer brutal viciousness. He was responsible for more than one missing person in the scraptowns, that was for certain. Connor's father had died from the drink before he could pay up, so his debt fell onto Connor, being the eldest son.
Wilder had made him an offer that was quite impossible to refuse. Connor was a genius of an engineer and a first-rate thief. There wasn't a safe, locked room, or bank that he couldn't get into. Connor could either work for Wilder, fixing their skimmers and weapons, stealing from chosen marks to pay off his father's debt, or Wilder could put both Connor's younger sisters in his whorehouse and pay it that way.
Connor was wanted in twelve different counties for theft. His sisters were both safe from Wilder, having paid enough to put them well out of reach, but he still couldn't get away. The man had a steel grip on him, and if Connor so much as put a toe out of line, Ethan would be the one to beat him within an inch of his life. That was why he'd run. He didn't care where he was going, just that it was away, away from Joseph Wilder and Ethan Dobrowski, away from thieving and scrubbing the blood out of skimmers.
Nick Cutter was probably his only actual friend, and he was one of the few people who actually knew about the Scotsman and where he came from. He was the one person that Connor could trust to help him when he needed it, despite knowing about his thieving. Nick had brought him aboard the Arc, introduced him to the Captain as an apprentice mechanic, and brought him out of that Godforsaken scraptown.
He'd been on the airship for a day and had already encountered corsairs. Connor put his old skills to work then, climbing across the snare lines onto the Prospero, sneaking his way through the passages and vents into the Raptor ship's engine rooms, and jamming the starboard engine. It was only a temporary thing. The airship would stay airborne, but it'd still list starboard and couldn't go even a quarter of its full speed. On his way to cut the anchor lines of the snares, he met a host of prisoners locked in the brig, the leader of whom claimed to be Tom Ryan in service of Her Majesty's Royal Air Force as captain of the airship Valerie. Connor had been reluctant to let any of them out—how was he to know whether or not they told the truth?—until Ryan said he knew Captain Lewis.
Ryan and his crew had taken out the entirety of the Prospero's crew within moments. Even the small young woman that looked like a stiff wind might knock her over had shot her fair share.
By the time all the corsairs were either dead or incapacitated, the sun was rising, the soft dawn light filtering through the air as Captain Lewis, Claudia, and Stephen crossed the gangplank onto the Prospero. Connor watched as she walked up to the broad-shouldered man. "Ryan."
"Lewis," Ryan greeted just as coolly, but then he grinned and clapped her on the arm like they were old chums. "Good to see you in one piece."
"You as well. Got yourself in a bit of a skiffle, eh?" Jenny asked with a smile. "What happened?"
He ran a hand back through his short blond hair. "That bastard Burton jumped us in St-Nazaire. He destroyed the Valerie," he said, a note of anguish creeping into his voice at the mention of his lost ship; Jenny patted his shoulder sympathetically. Connor was still trying to figure out how the hell they knew each other. Why would a transport vessel know a RAF captain? "He looked through everything we had, came after you. Is your crew safe?"
Jenny shifted her weight. "Got an injury, but it's not too serious. We've got a surgeon aboard, fix him up properly."
The other man hmm-ed. "Would have been a lot worse if not for the little mouse over here." He nodded towards Connor. "He jammed the engines, let us out of the brig."
The dark-haired lady turned towards him, hands on her hips. "Yes. How did you get over here, Connor?"
"Crossed the snare wires, crawled through the vents," he mumbled, head ducked and trying to avoid looking at Ryan directly. He was hoping and praying that none of the RAF crew recognised him from his warrants. He was still a wanted man.
Jenny raised one eyebrow but accepted it anyways. "Well, Ryan, what now?"
He glanced around the deck of the Prospero. "I suppose we'll fly her into Londinium. We can get the Arc fixed up proper, give you your credits, get your crewmate looked after, too. And see if I can't get myself a new ship."
Connor's head came up in surprise. Londinium?
It'd been going on five years since Captain Tom Ryan saw Jenny Lewis, and he was amazed by how much she had changed, going from a young girl, just run away from home with her little sister to a proper skydog that could drink any scrapper under the table and out-swear any sailor, with a sturdy ship and a steadfast crew. He had always been close to their family, and he saw the twins as younger sisters of his. He had somewhat lost touch once he joined the Royal Air Force, as was his ambition, but he'd laughed himself silly when he heard they'd run away with a hefty chunk of Geoffrey Lewis's credits, because he'd always known they would. Once he'd become captain of the Valerie, he'd always kept an eye out for her, wondering if perhaps he wouldn't run into the twins again.
He'd never have imagined it'd be like this, though.
Nothing had surprised him more when he was contacted by none other than Sir James Lester, one of the most prominent men in the Ministry. Nobody knew exactly what it was that Sir James did, but they knew that he had plenty of strings to pull and people in his pocket. To be assigned a mission by Sir James was akin to being given a task by the Queen. Ryan was to take the Valerie to St-Nazaire, France, and wait to rendezvous with Captain Lewis of the Spino-class airship Arc. She had retrieved something belonging to the British Government and was to deliver it to him, and then he'd take it back to Londinium. Ryan had waited in the Biscay for Jenny to arrive, keeping an eye out for the ribbed sails of a Spino airship.
Instead, they'd been met by the Prospero and her corsair crew.
One of the conditions of the mission was that he was allowed only a skeleton crew of handpicked officers he knew could be trusted. For him, that included his first mate, Jon Lyle, his helmswoman, Jess Parker, his senior officers and gunners, Niall 'Blade' Richards, Darren 'Kermit' Cooper, Matt Anderson, Emily Merchant, and his medical officer, Ditzy. So few officers was good for preserving the secrecy of a mission, but at the same time, it was shite for stopping an assault by pirates with hotloaded weaponry and additional gun attachments as well as engines made to go twice as fast as the Valerie. They'd all been taken hostage, despite Ryan's best attempts to prevent it, and the Valerie had been blown apart, her pieces sent into the Biscay's waters for some scrapper to find. He still ached to think of his lost ship.
Four days in the cold, slimy brig of the Prospero with his handful of crew, Ryan said probably every prayer he knew twice over for the twins and their crew. He still had no idea what exactly this mission was, but he was also cursing Sir James twice over for giving it to him. He knew they had to be close, because the Prospero was flying so low to the surface of the Biscay that the waves lapped at the bottom of the hull, her engines shut to their lowest power, hiding in the thick fog that rose off the surface of the ocean. He cursed under his breath, punching the wall and instantly regretting it as hot pain flashed through his knuckles.
His crew were all equally quiet, sitting hunched in their own cells. He, Emily, Jess, and Kermit were in one cell, Blade, Matt, Ditzy, and Lyle in the other. He leant his head against the wall and began counting his own breaths. 362 breaths later, and they all startled as the engines suddenly roared to life, the airship lurching upward with enough speed to make their stomachs sink. Ryan began swearing in earnest as he heard the sounds of snares being launched, followed by the sound of gunfire from another ship and the shuddering of the Prospero as she took fire.
It seemed like an eternity, but it was only a few moments later, when the corsair ship slowed to a stop; no doubt Burton and the others were already aboard the other ship. Ryan knew from personal experience with the girls that neither Jenny nor Claudia would give the corsairs an easy time. He prayed for the twins and their crew yet again.
"Captain," said Lyle quietly, "did you hear that?"
There was an awful metallic screeching, grinding, scraping noise from about the engines that made Ryan's scalp prickle and his teeth grit, and then they were all thrown against the hull as the Prospero lurched starboard, but not like they were making a sharp turn. More like someone had gone and jammed up the starboard engines. Hope surged briefly in his chest, then bloomed as a young man went bolting past, coming from direction of the engines, covered in soot and sprinting like the devil was on him. "Oi! Oi, lad, c'mere! Let us out!" he shouted, grasping the bars and pulling himself upright.
The lad skidded to a halt so quickly that Ryan was surprised he didn't fall right on over. There was something vaguely familiar about his face, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. "Why should I? How do I know you won't just kill me?" he demanded sceptically.
"Look, I'm Tom Ryan, Captain of the Royal Air Force airship Valerie, I'm not killing anyone who rescues me from a corsair ship," Ryan protested. "My crew and I were all taken hostage. We'll help you," he said. When the lad hesitated, obviously torn, he added on, "And I know who's ship you came from, too. I know your captain. You got off the Arc, didn't you? Spino-class airship, with Jenny Lewis and her sister Claudia Brown. Right?"
The young man hesitated a moment. "Skive," he grumbled.
The lad hastened over and pulled out a set of pins and picks, attached to a small length of chain, and knelt in front of the door. Ryan watched, baffled, as he began poking the metal pins into the keyhole of the door. "Might I ask what the hell you're doing, lad? You need the keys," he pointed out.
"These are the keys," the boy replied. The door lock clanked, and he shot Ryan a victorious look, hauling the door open. "C'mon, then. I've only jammed the engines for a moment, they'll manage to fix it right enough."
Ryan paused only long enough to grab his pistol and sword before sprinting onto the deck, his crew close behind him.
It was good to see Ryan again, his skeleton crew of familiar faces all just as worn, dirtied, and bloodied as her own, and no doubt they made quite a sight, walking off the Londinium docks. The ships here were all spit-and-polished, RAF and first-class passenger transports, with uniformed crew and gilded passengers. Not a ragtag group that looked like they'd just gone for a roll in the scraptown whorehouses, in a ship older than any other in dock. Still, all Jenny had to do was pull out her pass, commissioned by Sir James bloody Lester himself, and they were home-free. They'd piloted in the Prospero as well, which could either be sold or scrapped, either way would turn a healthy profit for her crew. The rest of the corsairs were all trussed up in the cargo hold, with Blade, Kermit, Becker, and Stephen keeping watch over the lot.
"So, when are you going to tell us what we're doing here?" asked Nick, voice stiff, as they walked off the docks.
Jenny glanced over at him. He was pale and clammy still, but at least he was walking on his own two feet. The fact that Danny had shot him with painkillers up to his ears might have had something to do with that. "Remember that job in St-Nazaire I told you about?" she asked; he nodded. She jerked her chin at Ryan, who was walking a few paces ahead with a cylindrical black case tucked under one arm. "Yeah, they were it. We were supposed to deliver that case to his ship, the Valerie, in the Biscay, and we'd get paid in St-Nazaire after we did. But seeing as how Burton had taken them hostage and the Valerie is in pieces at the bottom of the bay, we're making the delivery direct-like to Londinium. Why?"
"No reason." He said it dismissively, but she didn't fail to notice how his eyes kept drifting over to Connor, who looked more and more twitchy by the second. "What's in the case?" he asked at last.
Jenny shook her head. "That's the business of Sir James, Engineer."
"I got stabbed, mind you, skydog. Right here," he protested, opening his shirt slightly; Jenny glanced away from the ugly line of stitches. She wasn't queasy about blood, but she didn't particularly like looking, either. "I think I've got a right to know what for."
"Ask Sir James when you see him, then," she replied sharply.
"Oh, I intend to."
She resisted the urge to groan aloud. God save me from the stubbornness of mechanics.
If she thought that they'd made an impression at the docks, then they made an even bigger one when they walked into the Home Office. Anyone passing them by made conscious effort to keep at least three metres between themselves and her lot, as if they were carrying some sort of disease she didn't know about. Probably thought the destitution would rub off on them if they stood too close. Ryan, in no such mood to be playing about, strode right up to the front desk and slapped one hand sharply on the counter; the little bit behind the counter half jumped out of her chair, looking pale and scared. "We're here for Sir James," said the RAF captain. "I'm Captain Tom Ryan, this is Captain Jenny Lewis. We have what he asked for."
The girl—she was too soft and green for Jenny to consider her a woman—only stared up at him like a frightened rabbit.
Ryan leant a little closer. "Go get him," he instructed.
Jenny had never seen a girl move so fast in all her life, bolting up from her chair and making a dash for the lifts like hellfire was at her heels. Smirking, she leant up against the counter next to him. "You gotta make an impression, don't you, Tom?" she asked with a shake of the head.
He shrugged nonchalantly. "I dunno what you're talking about."
Sir James Lester had been in the employment of Her Majesty's government longer than most ever would be. He had strings to pull that reached the other side of the world, and was owed favours by bureaucrats all over. Some liked the term 'hatchet man,' but he preferred 'troubleshooter without portfolio.' Sounded far better on paper. He could say a word and have someone's reputation destroyed. He was the man behind nearly every political maneouver in the British Government, and better yet, he had access to a veritable army of underlings to do as he bid. All in all, it was quite glorious.
Therein, however, lay a problem. Underlings—like RAF captains and skydogs—had this nasty little shadow that followed with them everywhere: trouble, either getting into it or causing it. He had picked out Tom Ryan for this particular job because he was the best man for the job, simply enough. He was a good, loyal captain that could follow orders as well as he could give them, could do what he was asked without questioning it overmuch, and wouldn't sell out his country to save his own life. Jenny Lewis and Claudia Brown were another matter.
He knew all about them—the twin daughters of Geoffrey Lewis running away with over a third of their father's money, how could he not know them? But when he heard that they'd made themselves into skydogs, with an airship and a crew and all, that was impressive. And he supposed if two 19-year-old girls that had never left their own house without an escort could run away and make themselves into what they were today all on their own, then surely they could handle taking a little black case from Surrey to St-Nazaire? The Artefact—a peculiar object, somewhat of a puzzle box, that contained the political secrets of several countries—was to be delivered discreetly by Captain Ryan after Lewis gave it to him. It should have been an easy task, one to be accomplished with relative ease.
Apparently not, because here they all were, standing in an empty conference room, covered in filth he'd rather not think about too hard, Lewis and Ryan both, wearing matching looks of mutinous bad temper. They had most of their crew already with them, though he noticed that First Officer Jon Lyle and Gunners Richards and Cooper were absent from Ryan's number, as were Becker and Hart from Lewis's. There were also two new additions to Lewis's crew, though. A scruffy, ill-kempt little scoundrel that Lester immediately recognised despite the grime and bruises, and another familiar face, recognisable even under his similar mask of filth. Nick Cutter, once the most prestigious scientist in Londinium, supposedly gone mad after his wife's disappearance, shunned out of society for good. Nobody had seen him in years, and it was rumoured that he'd gone mad. Lester wondered if the sisters even knew they were travelling with a man that once rubbed shoulders with society's finest and a man that was on nearly every wanted list in the United Kingdom.
Sitting back in his chair, he steepled his fingers together on the table, watching coolly as Ryan strode up and set down the case holding the Artefact on the table in front of him. "There," the RAF captain said irritably. "We brought you your bloody case."
"Yes, I see. Now...which of you would like to explain just what occurred that you showed up in my offices looking like this?" Sir James demanded in his frostiest voice.
The captains exchanged a brief glance. "How much time have you got?" Lewis asked at last.
Once they had finished speaking, Lester sat back slightly in his chair to appraise all of them with a cool gaze. "Well, Captain Lewis, I must congratulate you on a job very well done. Not only have you brought me the Artefact, you've also delivered three of the most wanted corsairs in the United Kingdom as well as rescued several members of Her Majesty's Air Force," he said after a long pause, then slid his gaze over to the scruffy little ragamuffin that was currently trying to blend into the upholstery. Quite unsuccessfully, he might add, as none of the Home Office's upholstery was covered in soot and blood. "And an equally-wanted thief."
"Thief?" Lewis repeated in utter surprise. Ah, so she hadn't known. That definitely made things more interesting. She whipped about on heel to glare at Cutter and Temple. The younger man had his head bowed, the Scotsman resting a hand on his back. "You brought a thief on my ship? What happened to apprentice?" she snapped.
"You weren't aware? Yes, it seems Mr. Temple here...or shall I call you the Wraith?...is wanted for theft in a dozen counties," Lester announced coldly. The Wraith was a thief wanted throughout the UK, responsible for the theft of hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth in jewelry, art, tech, medicines, all sorts of things. There wasn't a security system he couldn't get past, no safe he couldn't open. And there was never a trace of evidence behind, not even a bloody smudge, just a note signed, Thanks for this. Your friend, The Wraith, left where some inordinately expensive object had been. Lester had only found out the little thief's name a few days before, and he had been preparing to set traps to catch the scoundrel.
And it would seem that he'd been sitting right on Jenny Lewis's ship without her knowing it. "Did you know?" she demanded, turning her eyes to Cutter.
"Yes," he replied bluntly. "And before you get yourself in a skiffle about it, why don't you let Connor talk first?"
The dark-haired woman's hand drifted down to her pistol unconsciously. "Why, you grimy, skiving little – "
"I did steal all those things, Sir James," the thief hastily put in, stepping forward before there was blood spilled. Lester was thankful for that, at least. Trying to get blood out of carpet was an absolute nightmare. "But not because I wanted to. I can give you the name of the man who made me do his thieving for him, and the names of all the people he's got dealings with."
Lester raised one eyebrow, staring at Temple sceptically. It would bring him no small amount of joy to lock up the Wraith, plague of the wealthy everywhere, but it would no doubt bring him an even greater joy if he could break up a black-market smuggling ring. At last, he said, "Captain Lewis, I'll have your payment delivered shortly. Get your ship repaired, and take your wounded man down to Medical, get him fixed up. Captain Ryan, the same goes for you. There is a ship about to be commissioned, the Taylor, if I'm not mistaken, that is still in need of a captain and crew. Certainly you and yours will do the job finely. Mr. Temple shall remain here. He and I have some things to discuss."
"So...what's happened with your little mouse?" Ryan queried, four days later, as they walked down the Londinium docks towards their airships, moored beside one another. Ryan's new ship had been commissioned, and Jenny's was now completely repaired, ready for departure. Fixing up the Arc hadn't been easy—snares were meant to do damage—but the money from delivering the Artefact and their bonus from saving Ryan and bringing in three highly wanted criminals and an entire corsair crew made it easier to bear. And she had already picked up a new job for her crew as well.
"Connor?" Jenny pushed both hands in her pockets. "Well, apparently, he gave Lester enough information on all sorts of shady scraptown criminals and the black market trade they got running down there that he was granted a pardon from the Queen herself."
Ryan nodded. "Good. Seems like a good lad."
"Really? You think so? Seems a little sketchy to me, but then again, I've got a thing about thieves," she replied.
The corner of his mouth twisted up in a small grin. "I think he's got a lot of potential. Just needs someone to put him in the right direction."
"Yeah, maybe." They came to a stop in front of the two airships, and she let out an appreciative whistle. "She is a beauty, Tom," Jenny said, hands on her hips as she looked at the newly-christened RAF airship Taylor, waiting in dock for her new crew. She was sleek and gorgeous and shiny new, fresh from the construction yard and ready to stretch her legs. "You will stay in touch, won't you?"
"Yeah, of course. Stay safe, little one," he said, giving her a one-armed hug before walking up the gangplank onto the Taylor.
Jenny boarded her own ship, walked up to the prow, and leant against the bulwark beside Nick, wearing clothes free of any grease, oil, or soot for the first time since she met him. She was still miffed with him. He had knowingly brought a thief on her ship, and not just any thief, no, the bloody Wraith, most wanted thief in Great bloody Britain. "So...you knew who Connor was. And you still brought him on my ship. Got a good explanation for that?" she asked.
He glanced over at her. "I do, but that's not my story to tell. You really want to know, you ask him. What matters is that I know he's a good lad. I'll personally vouch for him. And he is my apprentice, too," he added.
Jenny mulled over those words for a moment. Ryan had said almost the same thing about the young ragamuffin, and he hardly knew the lad. She would keep an eye on him for now, but she made a note to talk to him later. "How's the shoulder?" she asked at last.
"I've had worse," he replied with a small half-smile. "Are we ready to head out again? I know you skydogs. Your feet get itchy when you're on the ground too long."
She laughed softly. "Yeah, we're ready. Soon as we get the go-ahead. The Taylor's going to ship out first. Maiden voyage and all." She glanced over at him once more. Along with his clean clothes, it would appear his semi-permanent layer of engine grime had been scrubbed off as well. Underneath it, he was actually fair and freckled, and his hair was a pale shade of blond, highlighted with streaks of near-white and lowlights of darker honey. "Huh," she muttered.
"What?" Nick queried.
"Nothing, nothing, just...well, this is the first time I've seen you without soot all over you. I didn't actually know what colour your hair was until now," she replied.
His pale eyebrows rose in surprise, and he kept a straight face for only a moment before they were both dissolving into laughter, leaning against the bulwark and laughing aloud, the kind of laughter that could only come from two people that had not truly laughed for a long time. When their hysterics died off, Jenny clasped both hands together in front of her, elbows on the bulwark. "Look here, Nick, I was thinking...old ships like Arc need someone to look after them. That understands her engines and how she works. So, perhaps you...and Connor, of course...might consider staying on the Arc for a while longer. You'll be entitled to your share of any payment we get, of course, and a more permanent lodging. If you'd like," she said.
Nick stared at her hard for a moment, his expression unreadable. "You're asking me to be part of your crew?"
"Yes. I am. You do understand, certainly, that situations like the one we ran into isn't uncommon? There's always corsairs to look out for."
"And adventures to be had as well," the Scotsman replied. "That sounds like fair employment to me, Captain."
"Well, then, welcome aboard, Engineer," she said, holding out one hand, which he shook firmly. And maybe she held onto his hand just a little longer than normal, liking the feel of warm, work-callused fingers curled around hers. "You know, there's been plenty of reports of strange animal attacks up in Northumberland. Faerie lights at night and monsters on the moor and such. Might be a spot of work there. Think you can coax the old girl up there?" she asked, patting the smooth metal of the bulwark.
Nick glanced up at the tall, ribbed sails of the Arc, her towering masts and rippling lines, a small, fond smile on his lips. "Yeah. I think she'll make it."
"Good. Let's get started." Turning back in the direction of the docks where her crew were bidding their goodbyes to the rest of Ryan's crew as they boarded the Taylor, she put two fingers in her mouth and let loose a piercing whistle. "Alright, everyone aboard! We're heading out!" she shouted. They waved their last goodbyes and boarded their separate airships. She saw Ryan at the prow of the Taylor and saluted, then waved. He returned the gesture, then waved the signal to Jess at the helm. The moorings retracted as the engines started up with a great hiss of steam and a rumble of gears, making Jenny's stomach lurch. There was nothing quite like hearing an airship start up her engines. The Taylor left the dock slowly at first, but the moment she was clear of other ships, the low thrum of engines grew in volume as she picked up the pace, stretching her legs. Soon enough, the RAF airship was only a small, gleaming metallic speck in the distance, and then she was gone.
Jenny took a deep breath, then glanced back at her own ship, her favourited and beloved Arc. Raising an arm, she waved for Abby to take them out, and she felt the familiar thrill as the Arc rumbled to life, moving out of dock and out into the open air.
Time to go to work.