The Zephyrus was nothing like the Aurura Majora. For starters, she either started her life as a sailing vessel, or had been designed by someone with a limited imagination and no access to any literature or drawings on the subject of ‘airships’.
She was, to put it plainly, a ship with wings. Huge, billowing canvas wings that were at the moment folded and lashed to her sides. Some sort of vents had been retrofitted to her waist, stern, and on either side of the masthead, presumably connected to whatever propulsion magic kept her moving, but there was no hiding the irregular place on the deck where there had once been three masts.
At least she was large: almost ninety feet from bow to stern. I decided that was something at least as I exited the airdock tower onto the wide, aerial pier leading to the ship. The dock was more or less deserted with not even a crew of porters in evidence. Either the party that hired the ship was traveling light, or they had loaded the cargo themselves.
The later seemed very likely, judging by the men that lounged at the rail. Both human, they were of the much scarred and poorly groomed variety of hired muscle often hired by people who knew very little about proper choice in mercenaries. Men of that type came cheaply, but they were also prone to leaving cheaply and with a knife twixt the ribs when the other man’s ‘cheap’ exceeded their employer’s.
“Gentlemen.” I called up to them from the gangplank. One of the men looked up from the stick of wood he was carving into a smaller stick of wood and stared at me with all the soul and intelligence of my left boot. I nodded as if returning cordial greeting. “Captain on deck?”
The two mercenaries glanced lazily at one another, but luckily I didn’t have to wait for them to decide if he was worth talking to or not. A third man appeared at the top of the gangplank. “That would be me. Captain Hemilind and this is Zephyrus.”
Captain Hemilind had the dark skin of a Rizeni or possibly one of the southern principalities of Novrom. He was clothed in a loose, bright orange shirt with a vest of brown leather over it and canvas trousers over heavy, black boots. His black hair was worn long and well oiled so the overall effect made him look like the illustration on the cover of a penny novel about heroism, sailing, or romance taking place in the course of the previous two.
His manner and the fact that he introduced his ship as if it were a person told me he took pride in her, no matter how patchwork she appeared, and likely ensured that the crew kept her in the best working order.
I shook the ticket from my sleeve pocket and into my hand. “And a fine ship she is, captain. Permission to come aboard.”
As expected, the corner of the captain’s mouth curved up just the slightest bit on hearing his ship complemented. I’m one hundred percent sure it sounded sincere to him. “Permission granted, Master…”
“Ridsekes.” I started up the gangplank. “But no master necessary. Call me by Traceren or Trace.” When I topped the plank, I handed over the ticket as part of a handshake, taking care to let my coat flutter open just far enough that the mercenaries—and now that I was on deck, I could see that there were at least half a dozen—could see the pommel of my sword.
Once the proprieties were over, the captain looked over the ticket. “I apologize for the cargo passage, but the rooms were purchased in advance. My first mate was even asked to sell his off for our chartering guests.”
His expression said that he had the same suspicion as I did: that those chartering guests were smugglers or one kind or other. It bothered him, clearly, but their coin clinked just as well as any, and it was rare for a ship with passenger rooms to be able to fill all of them during any given leg of a route.
“That’s fine enough for me, I assure you.” I said amiably. It paid to be on good terms with the captain of as many vessels as possible for many reasons, especially any vessel I might be traveling in. I was telling the truth too; after crossing a desert on a sledge drawn by a team of particularly excitable riding spiders, the mundane discomfort of a cramped cargo hold was a welcome inconvenience.
The captain handed the ticket back. “We have tried to make things more comfortable, especially with two passengers down there. We put up proper cots between store containers so you’ve at least two proper walls, and we’ve strung of canvas to pull across the gaps for privacy.”
“More than I require, captain.” I inclined my head to the other man. “If you could show me to the fine accommodations you and your crew have provided? I don’t wish to be in the way when you cast off.”
“Of course.” the captain said, motioning for a crewman to come over. “Mr. Trrath, please show our guest to his quarters in the cargo hold.” Trrath nodded and made a rumbling sound in his throat.
He was a member of the sylphan race of cat-people called miare. Actually, cat-people is a gross simplification. Miare do indeed have heads reminiscent of a feline’s, and their ankles are configured more like a cat’s than a man’s. But their hands and feet have four digits and a thumb with thick, sharp nails instead of retractable claws. Their tails also display a limited prehensile capacity like a monkey. The feline-shaped skull hold the grinding teeth of a primate instead of all tearing teeth like a big cat.
Demi-human physiology was one of the first courses I attended upon entering the Bardic College. I probably know more about minotaur and miare, lasconti and dwarves, and every other sentient humans share Ere with than most members of those races.
Among the members of the College though, my knowledge was middling at best. I recall my first tutor on the subject; that man knows more on the subject than anyone, and if the various novelizations of his days walking the earth before settling in as a tutor were to be believed, that knowledge of anatomy wasn’t gleaned solely thought medical dissections.
Whatever his classification, Trrath didn’t seem eager for conversation as we descended a ladder into the hold. It was, as to be expected, dank and close with items staked down in cargo netting or canvas on all sides. The hammered iron containers that protected the ship’s stores of food and drink from vermin were arranged so as to create three narrow compartments with canvas curtains fronting them. Trrath directed me to the second one and without any further words (or any at all in fact), headed back to the ladder.
I frowned after him. None of the other hands had looked any happier. There was a sort of grudging anger pervading the ship, the kind one got when people were well paid to take abuse, insult and/or annoyance. The precise mix could turn the trip treacherous in a hurry.
But I had no doubt that I could defuse or at least moderate a mutiny. As long as the smugglers, or whatever they were didn’t decide to simply slit everyone’s throats in their sleep. Even a loreman is defenseless in slumber.
That would not be a difficult task, I realized upon seeing the makeshift quarters. There was a cot and a chemical lantern that gave off light without heat when shaken, but that was the entire tour.
Famously missing were any way to actually secure the canvas for any semblance of actual privacy, and the usually ubiquitous footlocker for valuables. It looked like my pack would be going with me whenever I moved about the ship.
There was nothing for at the moment, so I pulled the canvas curtain closed and sat down on the cot. It was surprisingly comfortable, but just an eyeball’s estimation told me that it wasn’t designed for someone my size. Another night of sleep sitting up then.
Forced to admit I was indeed officially inconvenienced, I sighed and opened the carpet bag filled with nicked party food. There was a ground pork and green apple pasty in there that was calling his name.
While I rifled through paper wrapped morsels, a sound coming from the far side of the ‘wall’ behind me caught my attention. Most people wouldn’t have heard it, but when music is involved, detecting it even when it’s sub-audible is a sort of special sense for a loreman. I could feel the vibrations of soft humming through the metal container.
After a few moments of waiting and listening, I identified the song: Ode to Sunlight and Rain, second hymnal in the Hessan temple’s traditional solstice celebrations. It’s a favorite for musicians to rearrange and make their own, but the person humming was idly humming the traditional verses.
The compulsion to hum along almost got the better of me, but I managed to remain restrained. Whoever was humming was doing so quietly so no one could hear them, and if I joined in with the exact same song, it would not only embarrass them, but make them feel that they were being spied on.
Instead, I made a late breakfast of the pasty, a wedge of fine, blue veined cheese, and a mouthful of tepid water from my travel canteen. I was saving the wine for the night time, but I didn’t miss ie because the dinner music at my back was wine enough while it lasted.
It ended up lulling me to sleep. I’m never comfortable in Bri-sean and I hadn’t been sleeping well while I was there. Adjusting to the light sleep of a soldier, always on guard for attacks even in the dead of night, was another of those survival traits key to Bri-sean. I made it a point never to stay long enough to develop it,
Eventually, I was awakened by the song anging and the humming stopped replaced by the brief rustle of their canvas divider being pulled aside, followed by soft soled boots moving toward the ladder.
Robbed of entertainment and deciding it was much too early to sleep, I searched through my main pack. I came up with a copy of On The Construction and Habitation of the Fort at Lake Jintoko And The Strange Happenings There. Authors without format training at a Bardic College or at least a smoke bar favored by bards and poets tend to have trouble recognizing the value of a succinct and easily remembered title.
The volume was made of cheap paper, the same kind used in penny dreadfuls, or guild circulations, and it conspired with the cluttered nature of my pack to make it elderly beyond its years. To think it had cost two Calleni silver shields only two days before.
I thumbed through it to find my lost place, and was wondering where in the travel bag my favorite bookmark (a finely sanded slat of oak painted with an unusually detailed map of the Ere mainland) had gotten to when, the ship cast off.
A sudden growl that came from astern and below. It sounded like a big cat attempting to roar with a throat full of gravel and burrs. The mystic engine had been engaged.
Moments later, the floor dropped about four inches and attempted to slide sideways beneath me. The mild, tense sensation of dormant magic being urged to life attracted my attention from the third wall of the makeshift cabin, the one that also served as the ship’s hull.
“Ah.” I said aloud to break the suddenly noticeable silence following the engine engaging. Silence bothers me like a gnat flitting in my ears. The Zephyrus was kept afloat by an uncommon method; spells were pressed directly into the wood instead of bound there with runes or sigils drawn in molten metal.
After several minutes of prodding the now active spell and wards built into the hull with various spell applications meant specifically for evaluating other spells, I knew precisely how the Zephyrus flew. There was something remarkable about the old girl after all. Inquisition satisfied, I sat down and finally found my place in the book.
It was just reaching an interesting bit in which a scholar who unscrupulously attempted to steal valuables from the titular abandoned fort was found murdered with a sword formerly belonging to the first commander of said fort. The commander having been dead for eighty years complicated things considerably.
Two hours of reading in the cramped nook eventually stiffened my legs and back enough that no amount of ancient murderous ghosts, truth-seeking protagonists, or sexual tensions (between members of the latter, though it hadn’t been ruled out for the former just yet) could distract me from it.
Rising, I groaned and reached above me, only to find that the ceiling started about a foot from my head.
Aside from my profession, the one thing people often comment on is my stature. Many would like nothing better to have it. And granted, in some situations, it is undoubtedly an advantage. Travel is not one of them. Space is always at a premium and every vertical foot built into a wagon or ship or even airship is more weight in material and less space on another deck or cargo compartment. I have about a foot and a quarter more to offer than the world is willing to accommodate.
So my ‘room’ was not the best place to stretch the kinks out. Grudgingly, I packed my things away and ventured out of the bolt hole that would be home for the next two and a half days to the Frost Gates.
I would have to circulate among the crew and possibly those worrisome charter passengers who appeared to be criminals of a sort eventually, but after entertaining Bri-sean’s ‘nobility’, I was content to be alone.
Seeing as the cargo hold appeared to be empty at the moment, I thought it the perfect place to stretch tired muscles, even if I couldn’t reach above my head.
The narrow path that lead from the ladder to the ship’s stores (and incidentally, the cargo passenger quarters), was lit by longer lasting and more reliable chemical lamps bolted to the ceiling in wire cages. Their light was stark, but steady, and, as I soon noticed, the only light in the entire hold.
It didn’t take long to reach the edge of their glow and peer into the darkness beyond. Shadows didn’t deter me all too much. Lifting my right thumb and forefinger to my lips, I hummed a deep, resonant note that progressed upward to a shrill
In doing so, I smoothly separated the tips of those digits. An orb of light formed there and grew to half the size of a closed fist. Another progression of notes shifted the mage light’s initial stark white to a more natural shade of yellow.
Taking my hand away, I let the light fly to hover a few feet over my shoulder. It shed light enough to illuminate a ten foot sphere around me.
Zephyrus widened past her waist and so the cargo hold became more expansive there as well. She was loaded down with trade goods for the most part; crates of brandy and barrels of beer from a half dozen principalities n Novrom, sacks of whey-weed and bolts of plant fiber cloth from Rizen, and the most exotic item was a crate simply marked ‘reagents’, and two others stamped with the caution symbols for volatile magic from Mindeforme.
Potions, most likely. They were shipped all over the world from the large infusion houses despite their tendency to wreak havoc if they broke or mixed.
Good luck to the captain, I thought. Chordin is where he would get he least profit from his goods. Aside from the Formean infusion houses, Chordin’s were the largest in the world and plant fibers hadn’t been in style in there for half a decade.
One piece of freight caught my attention in particular. It was a crate taller than I am by nearly a foot, with slats nailed close together and sealed with either tar or dark wax in the manner of foodstuffs. Instead of being secured with netting or ropes, it was strapped to floor and hull with heavy tarp that only left the top corners exposed. Likely, this was done to conceal its lack of valid stamps or labels.
But what caught attracted me was the low level tingle of magic emanating from it. Most magic, especially industrial magic doesn’t rely on singular spells for their operation, but several; usually one to detect certain conditions to trigger an active spell to go on or off. This is why magical flaming swords don’t burn their scabbards and the structural spells used in major constructions don’t give particularly sensitive magic users constant headaches.
Granted, the spell on whatever was in the crate was only detectable from a few feet, but that meant either a continual effect, or a very complex trigger spell. Curiosity spurred me to deploy the same analytical spells I used earlier on the hull.
Partway through the evaluation, I became aware of a presence looming up from behind even before the man spoke.
“A man shouldn’t nose ’round in other men’s goods.” I turned and had to look down quite a way to find the face those words came from. He was human to be sure, but somewhere along the way, some halfling or dwarf has slipped in. Repeatedly and with gusto.
A pitiful, wisp beard (the only hair to his head’s name) formed a line from his earlobes to his chin, looking like the ghost of a drowned weasel was haunting his face. And that face was red, the kind of red that lives on a face due to a lifetime of frustration and pent up rage. One eye had an eternal, accusing squint and shared a single eyebrow with one half of a goggle-eyed stare.
What really made me look again was his mode of dress: a smart, cream colored robe, cinched with a white and orange striped sash and soft orange vest. He had a pair of devotional medallions hanging from his neck; one that I couldn’t place, and the other being the sunburst belonging to Hessa of the Goodly Morn, Goddess of the Sun and patron of healers, charity and defenders of the innocent.
It took all kinds, admittedly, but the man looked in face and bearing more like the one who spawned the need for those things. In fact, his expression said he wouldn’t mind inspiring the need of the first two upon my person that very moment.
All this passed through my mind in an instant, followed by slapdash solution. An embarrassed smile spread across my face. It said to the world at large ‘Oh dearie, dearie me. Please forgive me for being so charmingly stupid.’
“Tenfold pardons, friend.” I added a self-conscious chuckle. “Based on my lodgings for the trip, I only assumed that the, er…latrine? Is that what it’s called on a ship? I thought it might also be secreted away in some nook down here.”
There is a rule of thumb for going places one is not permitted. If pretending you belong fails, pretend you are incompetent. People understand incompetence. They expect it. And even if they aren’t sympathetic toward it, they want it take place as far from them as possible with as little effort as possible on their part.
A malicious grin crossed the man’s face. “The passenger cabins got chemical heads. But the crew use craplines.”
It’s a popular joke to play on lubbers on sea going vessels and on my second stint of walking the world, I am ashamed to report that I did fall for it.. The memory of clutching a perilously slack cable tied along the port stern of a merchant ship while praying that my feet didn’t slip from it’s twin strung below it, sending me to a spectacularly indignant death was one I cherish rather less than… any other memories. I have been involved in maulings I recall more wistfully.
“But, you see, I’m not part of the crew.” I said with a terrified expression.
“Then I suppose you’ve go nowhere.” The man sneered instead of laughing.
I managed to look flustered and indignant. “Then I shall have to have a talk with the captain about this.” And I stomped off, completely off the hood for being caught red handed snooping. Still, I wondered: why would anyone need to ship an airship engine to Chordin?