“Ah, perfection.” Were someone to hear the words spoken, and not able to see what the man was referring to, they would most likely assume it to be an avid (or hopeful) lover complimenting the object of his desire. In a way, they would be correct.
It was an unusual sight to see, even in an establishment for which the primary purpose was serving alcohol; the way the man’s entire face was lit with radiant joy as he held the crystal glass up into the sunlight streaming through the windows. Aside from his strange behavior there was little to draw attention to the middle aged man and his liquor. Though his grey-streaked sandy hair was a little too long, and his clothes a little too worn, he seemed perfectly comfortable among the limited morning crowd at such an upscale tavern.
Judging by the look of distaste worn by the proprietor, his antics were not being appreciated on THAT front. Most of the few early patrons wore looks of amusement, however, so he was likely safe from ejection at the very least.
Having finally examined the snifter and its contents to his satisfaction, the excited man brought the glass to roughly level with his chin and inhaled deeply.
“To the greatest brandy on the continent!” The room gave an amused cheer in response to the man’s sudden toast, and the barman’s expression loosened slightly. Even once the toast was given, the strange man made a point to take another deep inhale over his drink, and to sip slowly at his beverage.
Seeming to revel in being the center of attention, the man made a nearly equal production out of his second drink, and seemed about to start another for his third when the tavern door banged loudly open.
“There you are!” The stern voice and easily recognized uniform of the man storming into the room caused all the patrons to suddenly and intensely focus their attention at something fascinating at each of their tables. Though all seemed to find something to look at that kept at least one ear pointed directly at the table where a new sort of show was taking place.
“Lieutenant Jerry, so wonderful to see you again.” The words, spoken through gritted teeth, held not even a token effort to hide the sarcasm and scorn they were laced with. “I’d invite you to join me, but you’re obviously on duty and this is FAR too fine a drink for you to afford.”
“It’s GERALD, though you should mock while you still can, Damini. And enjoy that drink like it’s your last.” The scowling officer sat at the table across from the older man as he spoke. “It’s only a matter of time before a smuggler like you ends up in a cell, after all.”
“Jerry, we’ve known each other for years now. You can call me Edward.” The gritted teeth from the younger man at the repeated nickname drew a smile from the older. “And in all those years you’ve known me, have you ever once found ANYTHING on my ship that shouldn’t be there?”
“I never said you were a bad smuggler, Edward. But you, or that ‘crew’ of yours is going to screw up someday. I just hope I’ll be the one to clap you in irons when it happens.”
Edward’s only response was to continue smiling and take another sip of his drink. A surprised look flashed through his eyes as the liquid met his lips.
“What?” The question seemed almost dragged unwillingly from the young officer’s lips.
“It manages to be the incredible even when drank in the foulest company imaginable! It truly is the greatest brandy on the continent.” The earnest response surprised several chuckles from around the room, and deepened the seemingly permanent scowl on Gerald’s face.
Whatever the officer seemed about to say was interrupted as the door banged open once again, though not as enthusiastically as it had during Gerald’s entrance, and all eyes turned to see a bizarrely dressed figure silhouetted at the entrance.
“Is the circus come to the capital?” The stage-whispered question from Edward to the young man across from him, drawing a quick scowl at the older man before the officer turned to watch the doorman move to intercept the newcomer.
The tavern’s patrons, proprietor, and one visiting customs officer all found themselves wearing near identical looks of astonishment as the strangely dressed figure handed something to the doorman which sent the large man immediately back to his seat with a nod directed to the barman.
“Apparently the circus pays quite well.” The observation came from Gerald as he caught the glint of gold in the exchange between newcomer and bouncer, before his attention returned to the man across from him. “I’ve official duties, so I’ll take my leave. But don’t think I’ll be going too far, Damini.”
Edward ignored the officer as the young man left the table and the building, focused instead on the brief conversation the newcomer was having at the bar before feeling his shock deepen as the strangely dressed – I think that overcoat is actually made out of a burlap sack. What the hell? – person purchased a bottle of the same fine brandy that the middle-aged ship captain himself was enjoying.
The unknown man made his way to a table near the back of the room and seated himself, making a point of putting a pair of crystal snifters down on the table next to the bottle. Moves like an aristocrat. Pays like he’s rich. Dressed like… He read a hundred year old book about peasantry and thought he’d try the style out? Wonder who he’s waiting for.
Edward found his drink empty far too quickly for his liking as he continued to try and puzzle out who the stranger in the back could possibly be. And how he can possibly afford a full bottle of Perfection. I-…
The sandy-haired man’s train of thought abruptly derailed as the man he observed reached forward to snatch the glass stopper off the bottle, and quickly poured both glasses nearly half full. No idea how to properly treat a brandy that fine. DEFINITELY rich brat. But… A slow turn of Edward’s head showed that no further newcomers had entered the room. Why is he pouring for two when he’s still alone?
Turning his attention back to the mysterious man once more, Edward was surprised to see the man apparently staring right back at him. Those are some impressively thick glasses under that hat, he might not be staring at ME at all.
A few long seconds of apparent eye contact were broken when the man in the corner pushed one of the snifters closer to the open seat across from him, and gave a nod to the suddenly wary ship captain.
Still… It would be too much a shame to let that glass go to waste.
Deciding quickly, Edward rose from his current seat and walked smoothly to stand in front of the table where the odd man continued to stare at him. Smooth skin. Too young to shave or-…
“Please sit down.” The quiet, and VERY female voice that came from the strangely dressed figure left the man across from her with a very stunned expression on his face.
Good gods, she’s way too tall for a woman. And this explains… actually this makes things even more confusing. Not seeing any other options that didn’t involve abandoning a perfectly exceptional glass of brandy, Edward smoothly seated himself after only a few moments hesitation at the invitation.
“I’m told that you captain a skyship, and that it’s likely for hire at this time.”
The statement, and its implied questions, allowed Edward to come to some quick conclusions and reach a little firmer mental footing. “Both statements are accurate, miss…?”
“I’d rather not discuss my identity until after a deal can be brokered, unless it’s completely necessary. Please, enjoy your drink.” The clumsy evasion drew a brief scowl, but it was banished quickly by the offer following it.
“To quick negotiations then.” Edward raised the glass in toast and the young woman across from him quickly mirrored the gesture, though from her hand placement it was obvious she’d never held a brandy glass before.
“Cradle the glass, like me. See?” Edward turned his arm to demonstrate and then brought the glass to his chin. “Then bring it to your face slowly and inhale the arom-…”
“Is the drinking etiquette important to our negotiations?” The impatient question prompted a contemplative look from the older man for a moment.
“Yes.” An exasperated sigh from the young woman that drew a wide grin. “Now sniff deeply, then bring the glass slowly to your lips and take the smallest of sips to begin with.”
In spite of her impatient glare, the young woman in the odd costume followed Edward’s instructions to the letter. After taking a second sip she set the glass back on the table. “Thank you for your instruction.” The words sounded automatic, impatient, and surprisingly sincere. “Any knowledge is worth learning. Now, may we begin negotiations?”
“Very well, my lady. For what purpose are you seeking to hire a skyship?”
“I require immediate and discrete transportation to the Capari Islands.”
“Cargo?” Edward tried, and failed, to hide the interest evoked by the destination behind an easy smile.
“Just myself and my baggage.”
The smile faded a bit. “My lady, the Pelican is a large cargo ship. Hiring the entire ship for a single passenger would be… impractically expensive.” Better to be blunt tha-…
Edward’s train of thought cut off as the woman across from him stood suddenly and produced a pistol from beneath her costume. Years of survival in far harsher bars than this one allowed the older man to react instantly. Before the young woman could bring her weapon up the ship captain was off his chair and ducking beneath the level of the table, hands darting inside his own jacket for the tiny holdout pistol he carried in more ‘civilized’ ports.
The distinct *TOING* of a firing springbolt came before Edward could extract his own weapon, and the cry of pain immediately following it from behind him snapped his attention back towards the tavern entrance. A sharply dressed man stood silhouetted in the doorway, leaning against the frame with a metal dart protruding from his left knee.
“Die BITCH!” The injured man in the doorway leveled his own pistol in the direction of Edward and his mysterious female acquaintance, his snarled threat barely audible over the suddenly panicked taproom.
The loud *BANG* that echoed through the room briefly silenced the shouting, and splinters from the table above rained briefly down on the prone ship captain as the first shot from the doorway missed his target low. Edward glanced quickly to see the girl struggling to extricate a second springbolt from her costume, and knew she wouldn’t have the weapon free in time against an opponent with a real revolving firearm.
The second *BANG* was quieter than the first, but still nearly deafening in the enclosed room, and the wounded man in the doorway crumpled as Edward’s shot took him cleanly in the chest.
Edward returned to his feet and stalked quickly across the room to the downed man, keeping the second barrel of the small holdout leveled on him the whole way. A growing fear started building in the pit of his stomach as he could better see the clothing worn by the would-be killer. Oh gods, those are royal colors. I just killed one of the Prince’s men.
“Thank you, captain.”
The words from behind him spun the stunned and angry man around to face the strange woman.
“I fear we must conclude our negotiations faster than I would have liked, and my position is no longer as good as I had hoped it would be. How much to hire your ship, captain?”
“Are you insane? Do you know who we just killed?” Edward knew his voice was growing hysterical, but felt that hysterics were likely appropriate. He absently noted the other patrons rapidly fleeing the room as he stood conversing with an insane woman and felt that he should probably join them.
“An assassin, one of Olver’s personal retainers unless the jacket is stolen.” The matter of fact way the woman responded left Edward speechless. “As I said, captain, we don’t have much time. It is now paramount that we reach an agreement.”
“You… You can’t…” Edward sighed and ran his free hand through his hair in exasperation. “We’re going to die. You realize that, right?”
“Not if we can reach an agreement and you can get me to the Capari Islands. How much, captain?”
The older man found himself smiling against his will at the single-minded focus the woman kept returning to her topic with. “Twenty pounds of gold or equivalent in silver or gems paid up front. Ten times that in trade goods or additional cash to cover the empty cargo hold.”
Edward’s jaw dropped in shock at the immediate acceptance of his proposal, a price that would have purchased the woman a brand new ship of her own had she taken it to a shipwright.
“Now that you’re firmly in my employ, I can introduce myself.” The woman removed her bizarre hat and dropped it disdainfully to the side. “I am Princess Lena Malaire, and I name you formally as one of my retainers. Now come quickly, we need to acquire my luggage and get to your ship before any more of my brothers’ agents can find us.”
Lena found herself holding her breath as she waited for the response that would likely decide if she lived or died this day. Should I have offered more, just to be sure? Goddammit, quit staring with your mouth open and say som-…
“This is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done, and trust me your highness, that’s a pretty high bar to jump. My ship and crew are at your service, a round trip to the Capari Islands; contingent on you producing the promised payment.” The ship captain’s posture and tone shifted dramatically as he spoke; all signs of shock and confusion had melted away and before the Princess now stood a man filled with purpose.
“So, first things first. I’m going to see if our friend here has anything useful for us, you grab the brandy.”
Lena found herself too shocked to move for a moment at the apparent change in character and brusque tone with which he’d just given her an order, but seeing him quickly carry out his own stated goal the tall woman turned to acquire her objective.
“Got it.” The princess turned and held up her prize just in time to see Edward pocket the deceased assassin’s revolver.
“Alright, step two. Is there any chance this man followed you from the palace?”
Lena considered the question for a moment before shaking her head. “He’s not one of the palace servants, and I would have noticed anyone in Royal colors following me.”
The captain looked less than convinced by the second statement, but nodded anyways. “That would mean that he would have to have been informed you were here after you arrived, which means there are likely more like him on the way. We should leave through the back.” The older man took his own advice and strode quickly around the bar towards the kitchen area. “Move quickly, your highness.”
Lena glared at the man’s back in response to his continued orders, but complied quickly. At least his orders are making sense.
The pair made it quickly to the large loading door in the rear of the kitchen, only for Lena to find herself stopped short when her companion suddenly thrust his hand at her face.
“Hold up. What are you wearing underneath that ridiculous costume?”
The princess ground her teeth for a second before responding. “A light dressing robe, why?”
“Strip off the burlap and take the overcoat there, off the hook.” A jabbing finger indicated the item in question, made for a man more than three times the princess’s girth.
“I’ll look absolutely ridiculous in that thing.”
Edward turned an appraising glance at the taller woman and rolled his eyes comically. “As opposed to your current, oh-so elegant ensemble?”
Lena grumbled under her breath, but had to admit the man’s point again. Thrusting the overpriced liquor into his hands, she quickly worked her way out of the improvised dress. The burlap was summarily tossed on the floor, and the young woman struggled her way into the massively oversized coat.
“I don’t know if I can walk in this.”
“It has an over-belt, see here?” A prodding hand indicated the strap’s location. “Cinch it in tight and mind your feet. It can’t be harder to move in than a formal ball gown.”
“I wouldn’t know, I’ve never worn one of those. Can we continue our escape now?”
“Yes, your highness.” The simple words the princess had heard thousands of times before seemed suddenly to carry a great weight of hidden meanings. “Follow me, stay close, and try not to shoot anyone unless we absolutely have to.”
Lena grumbled again at the condescension she heard in the older man’s voice, but followed quickly behind him still.
The pair exited the kitchen and darted quickly down the alley away from the front of the tavern. Lena then found herself pulled quickly along as her companion maintained a hurried, but not suspiciously fast, pace through several streets bustling with morning traffic.
“Where to, my lady?” The question caught the princess off guard as the two came to a halt some three blocks away from where they’d begun. “Your luggage?” The second prompt came as Edward turned and saw the confused look on the tall woman’s face.
“Ah, it’s in the cart I took into town, at the stable, near the west gate.”
Edward sighed. “Could you have left it farther from the sky dock, my lady?”
Lena bristled. “I thought that a peasant woman paying the fees to drive a horse cart through the streets would draw too much attention.”
“Horse driven? Really?”
“I didn’t want anyone to connect my dress or mode of travel with ‘Princess.'” Lena grinned smugly as she saw the older man nod in acknowledgement of her point.
“Very well, how much are we collecting?”
“One trunk and one bag. The trunk is quite heavy, but it has wheels so it shouldn’t prove too difficult.”
Edward nodded again and then headed out abruptly, dragging his companion behind him without a word of warning.
“So why is your brother trying to kill you?”
The whispered question came as the pair had traversed roughly half the distance to their goal, and the princess found herself struggling for a way to explain it, when one suddenly presented itself.
The tall woman pulled her hand free from her escort and walked quickly over to a small stand selling new papers. Lena quickly dropped a pair of pennies on the stand in front of the youth running it, and claimed her paper before the young man could attempt to sell her any of his other wares.
“Here. Father always did like to be thorough with his proclamations.” Lena thrust the paper at her companion, then strode forward to lead the way to their destination.
“He’s… What?” Lena kept her focus forward as she heard the shocked exclamations from behind her. “He’s, the king is going to have his children start a civil war? Why?”
The final question was accompanied with a hand on the princess’s shoulder to turn her around. “Why would he do this?”
“The most likely reason? My father is growing old, and he has become bored. I would say he’s hoping for a good show before his time runs out.”
“That’s insane. How can the people let a man like that be their king?”
“Monarch’s don’t ask their subjects for permission to rule, and is he any more insane than my grandfather? The man who routinely executed people if he felt their hair was parted on the wrong side? Or started two wars, one because he overheard a joke from the Norland Empire that insulted him, and the other because a vinyard in the Theocracy ran out of his favorite vintage?”
Edward looked fully set to argue the point when Lena began speaking, but he deflated quickly at each point she made. “Or possibly your whole family is insane, present company excluded, your highness.”
“It’s been a fact for generations that madness is part of the Malaire bloodline. I see no reason to take offense for a statement of fact, though I appreciate SOME effort on your part not to cause offense.”
“I’ve been offending you in other ways, I take it?”
“I’m not used to being ordered about, captain. I’ll survive.”
“Yes, your highness. I expect you will.” Lena turned to see the older man wearing an inscrutable expression. “And on that note, we’re here.”
The pair entered the stable, Edward taking the claim chit from his companion and showing it to the bored man seated just inside. “Just grabbing my lady’s luggage, the cart will be staying a bit longer my good man!”
An apathetic shrug was the only response, and Lena led her companion quickly to the stall containing the rickety old cart and broken down nag that had been her transport to the city.
“That thing actually made it all the way here from the castle?”
“It’s old, but was solidly built. I imagine it would make the trip several more times.”
“I was talking about the horse, I think it’s dead.”
Lena moved in curiously to where the beast in question lay in the straw. “It appears you are correct. It’s a good thing I didn’t intend to use it again, ghastly creature. My trunk is in here.” Lena accompanied her words by stepping to the back of the cart and swinging the rear gate down. “Be careful, it’s quite heavy.”
Edward smiled at the warning, then nearly collapsed under the weight of the wooden box as he pulled it free from the cart. “Good gods, what did you put in this thing?”
“Books, mostly.” The ship captain gaped in surprise as the tall woman hauled the trunk effortlessly upright to allow its wheels to come into play. “Your turn to lead the way again, captain. To your ship?”
“Yes, your highness.”