The Cogs of Commerce
The sky docks were alive with traffic: porters disembarking ramps, pulling hand carts stacked with crates and iron-banded barrels; richly-attired merchants waiting to talk to their captain of choice; clusters of girls in colorful dresses giggling whenever one of the broad-shouldered sailors of the skies passed by. An enterprising young man was doing brisk commerce out of a food trolley at the boardwalk’s head, and occasionally the strains of music could be heard. Even amid all the bustle and commotion, there was a tangible atmosphere of celebration and cheer.
Separated from the frenzy by a half-dozen empty berths, the airship Misty Morning hunkered in shadows deep enough to hide her worn wooden decks and mask her peeling paint. A trio of barren masts rose from the deck, the jagged poles bleached white like the ribcage of a beached leviathan. The masts themselves were gone, the poles a remnant of another, earlier, age of flight. The ship’s current means of propulsion, an ornery steam engine housed in the ship’s bowels, clattered and clanked loud enough to be heard above deck.
A bright green ribbon was tied at the bottom of the gangplank, the traditional sign that a ship was accepting commissions. The ribbon hung limp, looking sad somehow, scarcely bothering to stir in the faint breeze.
Standing on the ship’s prow, one scuffed boot up on the rail, faded leather duster billowing around her legs, Captain Melanie Locke watched the comings and goings of commerce to all but her ship with growing irritation.
Word of her expired license must’ve reached Waldron’s Gate. All the choice contracts moving Manifestation goods would go elsewhere. She might get a deal moving low-value bulk if she was patient, but it was an uneven proposition. Only the most desperate merchant would try an unlicensed ship and risk seizure and penalty.
As it was, she wasn’t feeling all that patient. Hand to brow, she scanned the crowd for the blue uniform of a dock official. The ship’s deck thrummed with readiness in the event a speedy departure was necessary.
Slow, cautious footsteps approached from behind. She knew without looking that it was Taul Kemmel, first mate and ship’s tally-master. None other risked approaching her on commerce days. “Taul,” she said in greeting.
“Sir.” Taul had been a Parliament Guard in the long ago and retained some habits from those days. At least he’d dropped that saluting nonsense.
“Not much in the way of commerce, is there?”
“Winter comin’, is all.”
He cleared his throat.
Mel sighed. “How much this time?”
A long inhalation.
That bad? Doubt took root in the space between his breaths. Would today be the day they realized she didn’t know what she was doing? That she put on a brave face and pretended at confidence for their benefit?
“Five…” Where was she going to come up with that kind of coin? They’d been down to necessities—parts and food—for some time. She didn’t need to be tally-master to know that five hundred was drastically more than they had.
Further up the dock, the cogs of commerce spun on, oblivious. Anger blossomed, burning away the more complicated feelings. She spun on Taul. “What’s Kile done to my ship this time?” Chief Wrench on the Misty Morning, Kile Filmore was forever complaining about something corroding or rusting. It was his responsibility to keep the ship flying, but Mel thought he often asked for things they didn’t really need.
Taul was substantially taller than Mel but somehow her anger always seemed to put them on an even level. “Maintenance, is all. Drive shaft’s corroded, rudders need balancing, the rear uplifters have maybe forty miles left on them.”
“Forty miles will get us to Rust Bucket.”
Rust Bucket was the airship graveyard, a vast brown field full of broken hulks left to rust in the sun. The graveyard didn’t exist on any map, allowing Alterra’s citizens to persist under the false notion that creations from the Ministry of Manifestation lasted forever. Perhaps that was true for things that spent their life close to the ground, but the sky was another type of reality. Hostile winds, a chill deeper than the harshest winter, water in its many, deadly forms—all conspired against a ship’s natural lifespan. Even the wealthiest captains, the type who’d scrap a perfectly good ship and order a new one built, had probably put into Rust Bucket for emergency repairs a time or two.
Parts could be had at Rust Bucket, but even second-hand scrap cost money. And she didn’t have the coin for replacement parts. Yet.
“Guess it’s time to venture landside and rustle up some commerce.”
“Is that wise, sir?”
Mel gave him a reassuring grin. “I’m sure they’ve forgotten all about that little misunderstanding.”
Taul frowned. His blue eyes shifted, tracking something moving down the docks.
A thin man in a long coat hustled along the boardwalk, hood turned up despite the heat of the morning. A luxurious suitcase swung wildly at his side.
“Curious,” Taul said.
“Not customs.” The man glanced over his shoulder every dozen steps or so. Definitely not customs. Nobody seemed to be following the man.
They met him at the top of the gangplank. Hunched over, gasping for breath, he looked to be perhaps fifty, one of those carefully constructed types who precisely positioned each hair. At least he had been. Mud splattered the legs of his tailored suit and the wind had blown his coiffed silver hair so that it stuck up at odd angles. He wore a thick layer of gray scruff on his chin. If he’d been on the run, it’d been for some time. He looked like trouble.
On the other hand, he smelled like money. “You seem to have lost your hat.” Likely his wits, too—she wondered if their tall hats kept them from escaping.
The man squinted up through tiny spectacles. He summoned up four measured words interspersed by wheezes. “Are…you…Captain…Locke?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Jarvis…” There was a searching pause. “Hillman.”
“Help you Mister Hillman?”
Jarvis straightened, cautiously glancing over the rail. The normal commotion of commerce continued, his passing seeming to go unnoticed. “I need to arrange shipment.”
“It is really quite urgent, Captain Locke.” Another furtive glance.
“As it happens, the Misty Morning is the fastest ship in the sky.” On account of her usually empty holds, but she didn’t need to bother him with such details.
“Indeed? Erm—might we conclude our commerce someplace a little more private?”
Mel smiled indulgently. She introduced Taul and led them to her personal quarters within the quarterdeck.
Dust motes swirled in the square of sunlight coming through the back windows. Blankets spilled onto the floor from the narrow cot. Her footlocker was open, the arm of a shirt draped over the side. Unfurled charts piled atop the small desk, partially buried by scraps of paper. Lists, of all kinds—repairs needed, favors owed, dwindling supplies, the crew’s debt and credit accounts. She even had lists of lists.
Mel would have tidied up a bit, but she hadn’t really expected the green ribbon to draw anyone up the ramp. Most of her business deals were concluded in dark alleys or the shadowy corners of drinking holes.
She smoothed the blankets more or less straight and kicked the chest closed. The chair screeched harshly as she settled into it. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Jarvis glanced between the bed and the locker, settling on the latter, his case balanced on his knees.
Taul closed the door and remained standing.
“Before we begin, Mister…”
“Right. I should warn you that we’ve got a full charter already. You look like a nice man, but I can’t just bump another patron to make room for your product without compensating the first. Do you take my meaning?”
“Quite, Captain. Only I do not imagine that will be necessary. You see, I only wish to transport myself. At once and with all haste.”
Taul looked like someone who’d stepped into a pile of disgusting and was considering how best to remove the filth without touching it himself. He waved his hands behind Jarvis’ back, shaking his head and trying to get her attention.
She ignored him. “Why not take a commercial ship? We don’t have much in the way of amenities.” There could only be one reason, of course—commercial airships required papers. If Jarvis was a wanted man, and she suspected that he was, then she risked having her ship impounded by taking his commission.
Jarvis rubbed his chest, a pained look on his face. “Commercial ships don’t go to White Peaks.”
Mel whistled softly. As a general rule, no airships went to White Peaks. Treacherous winds dashed the foolhardy against the cliffs long before they could reach the tiny valley town nestled amid the mountains. There was too little commerce there for the risk. “Look, Mr. Hillman…”
“I can pay.” He reached into his cloak, depositing a leather sack onto the desk with the heavy, satisfying clink of coin. Behind it came three more, squatting on the desk like grotesquely over-ripe fruit. Jarvis loosened the drawstrings of one bag and dumped a small pile of gold into his palm. “Quite handsomely.”
Mel tried to calculate how much coin was now sitting on her desk but her mind boggled and quit. Jarvis spared her the wondering.
“Two thousand, Captain Locke. Count it if you wish.” His smile was the grin of a man who’d revealed a winning hand in a flourish and knew that he had you.
She resisted the urge to reach across the table and slam his face onto the desk. There was a reason she didn’t play cards. “No.”
“No?” The color drained from Jarvis’ face, along with that stupid smile. Even Taul looked surprised.
“Two thousand isn’t enough to replace my ship when I crash it bringing you into White Peaks. I’m good, no question. But that’s not nearly enough for the risk.” Each word was an icy dagger plunging into her heart. Two thousand represented a lot of things—repairs, a renewed license, food. “You’d as well ask us to take you into the Fog.”
Jarvis’s face drained of color. “The Fog?”
“A joke, Mister Hillman.” The Fog was the nebulous border encircling Alterra. Said to be the domain of the Imp, there were all sorts of stories about what slithered and scampered in that mist-thickened country. It was impossible to separate fact from fiction, but only the mad would risk penetrating that ethereal border and find out for themselves. While she might consider flying him to White Peaks, no amount of money would send her into the Fog.
No, White Peaks wasn’t worth the risk for two thousand. On the other hand, she could just take the money. Throw him over the side and fly off with enough coin to replace every part of the ship’s steamwork engine, with more leftover besides. The idea was more than a little tempting. Time was, she would’ve just slipped the pouches into her pocket and went off without a second thought. But that was another lifetime. She’d closed that door long ago and vowed never to reopen it, under any circumstances. The price was too high.
But she was tempted.
Jarvis settled the matter for her. “I can pay more.”
Mel was a seasoned professional when it came to the time-tested ways of negotiation, and her dislike of playing cards aside, she prided herself on having an unreadable face. But now that mask splintered, disbelief showing through. “More?” The word came out as a strangled gasp.
“Two thousand now. Ten thousand more when we arrive. Enough to buy you a new ship, I should think. A far superior one.” He looked around the cramped quarters with obvious disdain.
Mel let the criticism of the Misty Morning slide, something she never did. “Twelve thousand?”
Jarvis spread his hands on the desk. “Is that enough?”
Taul was leaning heavily against the door, his face ashen. With seemingly great effort, he lifted his eyes to meet Mel’s and shook his head.
Duly noted, but it was her ship. “You have yourself a deal.”
“I have two conditions, Captain. One: we depart immediately.”
“And two: no questions.” His fingers tightened around the suitcase until the knuckles were white.
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