“Hurry now, Del. We mustn’t leave the furnace rooms unattended any longer than ABSOLUTELY necessary.”
The younger man hurried after Frederich as the engineer strode rapidly down the main passageway of the Pelican towards their destination. A piece of toast dangled from one hand, while a mug of tea occupied the other, as Del attempted to finish his breakfast on the move.
“I’m not sure I understand, Frederich. Didn’t the captain already take care of this?”
“The captain SAYS he took care of it, Del.” The grey-haired man stopped to turn and wave a finger towards his assistant. “But, the captain hasn’t always had the best track record in dealing with either women OR royalty.”
Del paused for a long moment after Frederich finished his finger waving and had resumed his trek, curiosity consuming his expression as he contemplated what the engineer had just told him. “How-…”
“We’re not here to gossip, Del, we have work to do!” Frederich cut off the question before it could even properly form, and the young man sighed and hurried after his mentor.
Del practically ran over Frederich as the pair reached the engine room, so abruptly did the older man come to a stop in the hallway. Del lost the last half of his toast as he jerked to a halt of his own, and peered past the grey-haired man with a scowl to see what had stopped him so completely.
“Ah.” Del’s eyes widened as he took in the scene in front of the still stationary pair. “It would appear that someone has unlocked the engine room door.”
“I CAN SEE THAT!” Frederich’s panicked shout nearly sent his assistant’s tea to the floor to join the ruined toast. The older man was through the door almost before he finished speaking, as if the observation was all that had been needed to galvanize him to action.
“Check EVERYTHING! We have to find out what that insane royal has done to my engines, and fix it before we fall into the ocean in a cloud of fire!”
Del rolled his eyes as he followed his mentor into the engine room, but did immediately join in the inspection. He may be a little melodramatic and overprotective of his engines, but he’s not too far off in what could happen if an amateur starts fiddling around in here while we’re underway.
“How did she get in? Have you found anything yet?” Frederich’s voice called out from behind the massive bulk of furnace one, the engineer obviously heading for the most dangerous areas to check for tampering first.
“Nothing yet, still looking!” Del set his mug on one of the workbenches and headed to check the drive-shafts, figuring that they were unlikely to have been the princess’ target; but they were out in the open and a rather critical component to keeping the Pelican under power.
The two men crawled through the engine room for almost half an hour before Del wandered back over to the workbench to take a sip of his long-cold tea. Frederich continued to shout questions and instructions from the crawlspace underneath the main steam-engine, but Del had long figured out that the engineer wasn’t actually waiting, or listening, for responses. A second sip and a turn to set his drink back down, and Del spotted something he’d somehow missed the first time. A few feet away from where his mug had been resting; a heavy notebook, expensively bound in leather with gold leaf inlaid in the shape of the royal crest of Cheles on the front.
“Frederich!” Del called out as he picked up the notebook and began to page through it. “I don’t think the princess did anything other than look this time around. She left a notebook!” The engineer’s assistant had to admit, most of the drawing their passenger had made of the engine components were far more precise than any he’d seen in the few manuals Frederich had scrounged over the years.
“Let me see that!” Del was startled at Frederich sudden appearance next to him, letting out a brief yelp as the older man snatched the notebook out of his hands.
Frederich flipped through the book quickly, irritation written clearly on his features with the turn of each page. After several seconds of perusal, the engineer snapped the notebook closed and strode quickly towards the exit.
“Bar the door behind me, Del! I have to go and see the captain about this.”
“It’s just observations and questions, Frederich. I don’t think she meant any har-…”
“What she MEANT is not relevant!” Frederich rounded on his assistant, then slumped as he attempted to calm himself before he continued. “My engine room is NOT a place for passengers to wander about whenever they so please. That woman bypassed a locked door to get in here, and judging from her illustrations, she dismantled SEVERAL of my tools and spare components!”
Del looked over at the tool bench. If anything the equipment looked in better condition than normal. Cleaner, at the very least.
“It doesn’t matter that she put it all back THIS time.” Frederich tracked Del’s gaze and responded to the unspoken question. “What happens if she takes something apart and CAN’T put it back together? I would be happy to help her acquire some tools and equipment of her own, to examine in her OWN space. But that will have to wait until AFTER we’ve reached at least our first destination!”
“Yes, sir.” Del recalled a few of the more intricate images he’d seen in his quick viewing of the princess’ work, and found himself doubting that she would find anything on the ship too challenging to reassemble based on what she’d already done. But at this point, it was easier to agree with Frederich.
“Good, now bar the door behind me. One of us will have to be staying in the engine room at all times from here out. After I get back, go collect some clothes and some bedding.”
Del’s nodding agreement came to an abrupt halt as he processed the last statement, but the engineer was gone down the corridor before he could voice an objection.
“HOW AM I SURROUNDED BY SUCH IDIOTS?”
Four men, all quite a bit larger than average and VERY dangerous looking, shrank back from the one average, unassuming man at the table as he shouted at them.
“I pay for the best. THE BEST. And now, my sister slips through our fingers. Not once, not just twice, but COMPLETELY.” Prince Gregor looked around at his top lieutenants with undisguised disgust. His gaze finally settled on the man to his immediate right “HOW did this happen?”
“We… we don’t know all the details, your highness. The message that Captain Fiero originally sent, and was passed on by Captain Fremont, it doesn’t have much detail. Captain Fremont believes that the First Talon must have tried to close with your sister’s ship, most likely under a false pretense, and was lost when they attempted to board her.”
“Tomas Fiero was a bold man, that’s why I picked him to captain my First Talon.” Gregor shook his head as he continued. “I can’t believe he would be stupid enough to take the crew of one Kestrel against the crew of a full sized ship like a Laridae.”
“Fiero did have a reputation.” One of the other men at the table spoke up, quietly at first, but he looked to gain an enormous amount of confidence when the prince waved him to continue. “Fremont’s message said that the semaphore flags were missing, most likely overboard when the ship went down in the water. But the case was intact. Maybe Fiero DID convince that old tub to let him get in close, but then someone recognized him from his… previous career.”
“Fiero hasn’t engaged in any acts of piracy in over a decade, Winston.” Gregor started another dismissive shake of his head, but Winston continued.
“How long has it been since they’ve MADE those ancient Laridae boats? Anyone sailing one of those, they HAVE to have been around for awhile.”
Gregor looked about to dismiss the point again, but then cocked his head to the side in consideration. “So Fiero manages to bluff them at a distance with signal flags, but in close some ancient captain on an ancient boat recognizes him from when he was a pirate over ten years ago?”
“He does have a memorable face, your highness.”
The prince had to nod agreement to that point. “Regardless though, this gets us nowhere. How many of the Talons are still in pursuit?” Gregor turned his attention back to the first man he’d questioned, who paled slightly this time before answering.
“Uh, none, your highness.”
“The Kestrels don’t have the range to run a search pattern over the open ocean, your highness. Fremont took the Second Talon on a half-day arc out over the water to see if his spotters could see anything, but it would be suicide to send such small vessels out.”
“Fully fueled, and properly sailed, a Kestrel should have no difficulty making it to Jiungli, which is MOST LIKELY where our quarry has headed! We don’t NEED a search pattern!”
“Yes, your highness. But all of the Talons were already out searching for days before they learned about this. They have to find ports in-kingdom to refuel before they can make the trip.”
Gregor slumped back in his chair, looking both furious and defeated as he couldn’t come up with a rebuttal to that point. “What are the chances that any of them can catch up?”
“Captain Fremont should be able to refuel in the capital and head out the fastest, your highness. But once out over the water his ship will have to rely mostly on sail instead of steam if they want to have a chance to make the full journey, and they will have nowhere near the speed advantage they normally do.
“With good winds, they should arrive in Jiungli a day or two after we anticipate the Pelican will make it there.” The large man cringed away from the royal again as he presented the less-than-ideal news.
“Call the other Talons back. Have Fremont give chase. A ship that large will take at least a day to properly resupply, so he’ll have a chance at crippling her in the docks when they arrive. The others will be days too late.”
“Yes, your highness.” The man hesitated at the table for a moment, before a dismissive wave from the prince sent him scampering off to follow his orders.
“Neil, what news do we have from the south?” Gregor turned his attention towards one of the two men who hadn’t weighed in during the skyship discussions.
“Prince Tyler appears to be formalizing an alliance with the Theocracy, your highness.” Neil didn’t flinch or break eye contact with his prince as he delivered the news. “Based on the current progression of treaties and dignitaries my men are reporting, he plans to move the vast majority of his forces off the border and head north within the week.”
“And he ACTUALLY trusts the fanatics to hold up their end of the deal?” Gregor sounded far more disappointed in his younger brother than shocked at the news.
“Prince Tyler is apparently planning to make Khathaeliscism the official, mandatory religion of Cheles after he takes the throne. In addition he’s agreeing to support an extended crusade by the Theocracy to move past our northern border, and begin converting the ‘godless heathens’ up there.”
“I really had hoped for better than that from poor Tyler. Religion is truly harder on the brain than any alcohol or opium, is it not?” The prince chuckled at his own joke, but the other men were far too nervous to do more than crack brief smiles. “Does he appear headed for Freeport or the Capital?”
“The Capital, your highness. Prince Tyler appears to plan on occupying Cheles itself as he directs his campaign against you and your brothers.”
Gregor threw back his head and laughed wholeheartedly this time, drawing a deeply confused look from the man who’d just finished speaking. Seeing the expression, the prince continued laughing but made a waving gesture towards Winston. “Tell him the joke, Winston.”
“The castle can’t be occupied at present. Apparently when Princess Lena fled, she first locked the full outer-contingent of Clockwerk soldiers into siege mode. The royals themselves can still enter the castle, but their armies will be treated as hostile and attacked if they try to set up within a half mile of the castle walls.”
Neil dropped back into his seat, staring blankly forward at the news. “The PRINCESS did that?”
“My big sister has proven a FAR better player in this game than any of us would have imagined a year ago. I may have to consider making a GENUINE alliance with her. Especially as my current tactics have failed so completely.”
“That… that’s all the news from the south, your highness.” Neil seemed uncertain of what to say, so he opted to simply conclude his report.
“And how goes matters in the north? Are my big brothers finished killing each other yet?”
The last man at the table shook his head at the question, then stood before speaking. “The current situation in the north has become… interesting, your highness. We were correct to assume that Prince Milo was making a strategic decision in allowing Olver’s forces to move into the outlying areas of his region uncontested.
“Your eldest brother’s forces apparently concealed a large number of men in the outer farming villages, and they correctly anticipated, and took advantage of, your older brother’s greed.”
“Olver had his troops steal supplies from the locals rather than setting up his own supply lines.” Gregor smiled as he realized the most likely tactic his oldest brother had employed.
“Precisely. Milo’s men managed to drug more than half of Olver’s army and slaughter them, but the sheer numbers on Olver’s side made the tactic less than fully successful.
“Olver has been forced to pull back to his own territory, with a reduced force, but his men destroyed as many fields and storage silos as they could during the retreat. Milo has the advantage now, but he has to press it quickly or he risks his people starting to starve.”
“Marvelous.” Gregor actually applauded as he spoke, startling all three men again at the sudden, sharp, noise. “It seems that Milo is as clever as I’ve always given him credit for, and Olver isn’t quite the pure brute we all thought he was. By the time those two are finished fighting each other, the survivor will be easily picked off.”
The prince continued to applaud his own statement, leaving his three lieutenants to exchange a quick look before all joined in the clapping, and spoke as one.
“Yes, your highness.”