The Galioux (as its name turned out to be), didn’t leave the docks until quarter to four in the afternoon, only because it had to wait for Veronica to return.
The captain had suddenly announced it was ready to depart to a wharf (which had no particular location or name, according to him) as soon as Veronica arrived, from where the new cargo would be loaded. All they had to do was wait for her to return.
Theodore found this unusual, of course. The cargo could surely just be loaded from this dock? But no, said the captain, citing vague excuses and imaginary tariffs. They had to be loaded from an entirely different location somewhere in Umbra Alley. Theodore knew of that district. It was not the kind of place he would like to visit.
The captain looked increasingly agitated as they waited out the time for Lady Veronica to return. He paced back and forth, checking his watch and incessantly ordering the crew. Theodore knew something was not right, but he couldn’t do anything about it, so he boarded the Galioux and waited comfortably away from the public eye.
The skyship looked dingy on the outside and felt equally so inside. He saw lumps of luggage in disarray, stained seats, and rust forming on railings. He remembered his lessons in artificery and prayed at least the reactor shell was up to code. He had a brief vision of being cooked inside-out by ghostfire and felt sick to his stomach. That image would stick with him for the rest of the flight, he knew. He quickly relocated to a seat as far away from the reactor as possible.
Twenty minutes later Veronica arrived, arms laden with the fruits of her exhaustive shopping, and the captain set off immediately. Theodore gave her a brief update on their next stop to pick up cargo. She was equally puzzled by this strange and sudden detour. They gave each other uncertain glances from across the aisle, but said nothing else.
Things only got stranger. The “wharf” they were landing at wasn’t a wharf at all. It was a warehouse, connected to a small grid of abandoned depositories, clearly another victim of poor city funding. It’s shattered windows glared at the streets like hollow eye sockets, partially patched over with wooden boards. Lights shown through the barricades, fleeting and brief.
Outside the warehouse were people, looking diminutive from the skyship window, milling about in small groups. Some patrolled the perimeter of the grounds. Separating the facilities from dingy apartments were trash-lined streets and alleys where stray dogs fought for scraps. The occasional tramp shuffled beneath broken streetlamps, giving the patrolling goons a wide berth.
Every head was craned up toward the approaching skyship. Theodore and Veronica watched them grow larger as the captain brought the Galioux into a low hover beside the warehouse. He gave the call for the hoist, and passed by the two siblings on his way to meet the strangers below. Theodore noticed the shining grip of a pistol under the captain’s jacket. His face looked grim with determination.
Four other airmen rushed past to join their captain, equally armed with pistols and daggers. Theodore tried to act unperturbed as he mopped the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief. Veronica was openly staring.
“What’s going on?” No one answered her.
The captain and his entourage descended via the hoist, and the dark figures below converged on them.
Theodore felt his chest tighten despite his stomach’s desire to exit through his mouth. His sister lost patience. She stood up and moved to another seat from where she could get a better view.
“What are you doing!?” Theodore hissed at her. She ignored him. He hesitated before joining her at the window. He considered in the back of his head whether he could pilot the skyship on his own. He pictured crashing to the ground in a fireball. Probably not.
Despite his fears, the captain and his airmen were not immediately fired upon. The strangers below gathered around. They looked like they could have been Machian, but here and there he spotted darker skin tones in the glow of their cheap cigarettes. They all appeared armed, and followed the commands of two individuals who carried themselves with an inflated sense of confidence.
Theodore couldn’t hear a word that was being said, but clearly the captain was trying to explain something. He could tell the strangers weren’t thrilled by their body language. They gesticulated wildly at the hovering skyship and back at the captain.
He and Veronica watched the proceedings with intense focus.
“What’s going on down there?”
“I don’t know. Looks like they’re negotiating something.”
The proceedings came to a peaceful conclusion after the captain presented a document to back his argument, which swayed the other side. They shook hands and a collective tension eased from everyone.
The cargo in question was a single lockbox. It was wheeled out and stacked gingerly on the loading hoist like it was the cure to Meul’s Disease. There was no more talking as this was taking place. The goods were quickly transferred, the captain gave the call, and everyone was back aboard the Galioux like nothing had happened.
Maybe he was just imagining it, but Theodore thought he could feel the crew’s collective nerves as they rode up the hoist with the boxes. As they got the ship underway again, their glances drifted to the cargo hold more often.
The Galioux’s reactor flared up with a shrill whistle that made Theodore’s stomach turn. His weight lifted off his seat as the ship became increasingly buoyant and climbed for altitude, leaving a silvery stream of evaporated Arcanite behind it.
He watched as the city drifted past. The tall funnels of Greyfalls belched their last head of smog before disappearing from view. Skyships in the dozens were drifting across that hazy sky, trailing vaporous tails, bound for distant civilizations. The Galioux followed the Green Channel for a quarter of a mile before plunging into a shallow cloud bank from which the view of Twosford was lost for good.
From there, the land below was barely visible. On occasion Theodore could make out the lights of the outposts and inns along Trapper’s Track, but little more. He fancied seeing lanterns plodding down the road, but couldn’t be sure. Soon the vast plummet off the side of the ship struck him with vertigo, and he gave up on sightseeing.
Veronica got up to talk to the crew, who lazed around her like lizards basking in the sun. None were too subtle or particularly charming, but Theodore could see her energy being replenished from their constant adoration. If she laughed, they laughed. If she became serious, so did they. The whole display of idiocy made him sick.
Theodore just hoped to God he wouldn’t be dragged into the conversation. He unfolded a newspaper and scanned it with exaggerated intensity.
The daughter of Ambassador De Costa was still missing, according to the headline. Things were looking grim for Dardassa. Allegations were a free ammunition for every major power, and everyone wanted a piece of the city.
None of the articles said the word outright, but Theodore knew it was on the mind of every journalist, reporter, and politician worth their salt: war. Old powers felt threatened by new. The one man keeping the peace was now in jeopardy.
The western world was on the edge of a precipice, he reckoned. It was just a matter of who would give it that final push over the edge.
The rest of the flight crept by painfully slowly. The darkness of night made looking out the windows pointless, and reading the newspaper had given Theodore motion sickness. Instead he smoked a cigarette, tried to sleep, and watched his sister entertain the captain and his crew.
All it took was a woman to reduce them to classless, simple-minded buffoons. Not that they were any better without Veronica. Even before she had arrived, they had been crass and uncouth, to put it mildly.
He sneered at them as he took drags from his cigarette and felt a weak sense of self-fulfillment. Sure he was judging them, but It’s what everyone was undoubtably doing to him, he reckoned. Why shouldn’t he judge them back?
Of course, he did not do this to their faces. He said not a word unless it was required of him, and hastily avoided eye contact with everyone, instead assuming the guise of an uninterested stranger.
It had taken his sister less than an hour to assimilate herself into their midst as one of their own. That left him all alone to himself, without any allies. The thought made him squirm in his seat.
Theodore was sure they were watching him. He did not like their gaze. He could feel them even without looking, like points of fire burning into the back of his head. His face flushed red for no good reason. He sunk deeper into his seat, and once again prayed for the trip to be over.
“Three hours out,” the captain announced. Veronica retreated to a window seat and had gone quiet for the first time during the trip. Theodore had just finished an uncomfortable nap and was left with the boredom of wakefulness.
He thought about home. Before, it had only been an idea: going home. But now it was about to become a reality. Excitement and nervousness circled his head like hungry sharks. The excitement had been all he could think about before boarding the ship, but now that his arrival was imminent, the nervousness had consumed its compatriot, becoming stronger as a result.
That nervousness had a storyline, just like everything in his head seemed to have. This one was about his father.
It’ll be fine, he tried to reason with himself. He won’t find out. I’ll just keep my composure, and lie through my teeth.
And if he does find out…? Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe he’ll forgive me?
Images of both played out like an opera in his imagination, dealing the psychological trauma before it had even happened. He steeled himself with desperation.
While Theodore underwent a change in emotions the closer he got to home, so too did his sister.
Veronica Everette was not one to be swayed by her emotions. It was a convenient lie to believe, but a lie nonetheless. She had carried mixed feelings about the return home since the beginning. City life had agreed with her as much as she had expected it to, and the social atmosphere proved the perfect playground for her.
Living in Twosford had given her the distance she needed from the Barony. And from that monster. She couldn’t think about home anymore without brooding over the night that almost killed her. Years of childhood memories wiped away in one instant – how could she not?
The nightmares had continued for a while, but soon her metropolitan pursuits were enough distraction to pacify the dark memory, at least temporarily.
For a time she had even forgotten the bleached-bone of its skull face, its lashing tail, and those horrid, empty eye sockets.
She would have stayed in the city, given the choice. The only reason they were coming home for break was because it was dead. Or so they said.
But what if they were wrong? Did they have a body? What if they were being too hasty? What if it was still out there, waiting for her to return, waiting to finish whatever it had wanted to do to her that night….
She looked out the window as these heavy thoughts floated to the surface. Below was the edge of that dark expanse of woodland they called the Silver Weald. She stared down into the mirk as though she would see something staring back.
Don’t be stupid. It’s dead. Father said so. He would know best.
Real fear – something Theodore would have been intimately familiar with – wrapped around Veronica’s throat. She gripped at the window ledge with white knuckles, staring down into the darkness below as they began their final descent toward the Barony.