“We REALLY need to hurry, Princess Lena.” Jean Russell unconsciously clenched and unclenched his fists in time with the distant gunshots as he nervously addressed his royal charge. “This is NOT the type of port where you want to stay on the streets when there’s fighting going on.”
The raven-haired princess refused to be hurried, however, and continued with her measured walk as she began to voice yet another objection. “Really Mr Russell, I do understand the desire to avoid such violence as is apparently taking place, but you seem intent on pushing us CLOSER to that situation.” Lena pointed in the direction of the docks (that her companion was attempting everything short of outright carrying her to get to). “Whomever is doing all the shooting, they are somewhere between us and the ship. It would make more sense to return to the restaurant, mediocre as it was. Or, even better, seek out whatever passes for a town militia in this port.”
“As I’ve TRIED to explain, your highness, Jiungli doesn’t HAVE anything like a formal guard or militia in the ports. The few businesses large enough to worry about it have private guards, but they wouldn’t likely take it very well if we were to approach them during a gun-battle elsewhere in town. The only other place with full-time protection is the docks.”
“Then why not simply seek shelter somewhere farther from the violence until such time as it passes?”
“Princess, do you see ANY open doors or windows around us?” Jean gestured wildly at the street around them; every building closed with even the shutters barred over the windows, in spite of the early evening heat. “If we go knocking on doors right now, or even loiter in one of the nicer neighborhoods like this for too long, we’re likely to meet a bullet for out troubles.”
Lena’s expression immediately showed what she thought of the description, ‘nicer neighborhood,’ but the princess sighed in acquiescence rather than objecting further. “Very well, then. I suppose I will trust you as my far more experienced guide in matters such as this. Lead on.”
Never much of a religious man, Jean still took a moment to glance skyward and mouth a quick prayer of thanks before taking the princess’s proffered hand to lead her more quickly through the dimly lit streets. Silence, save for the duo’s rapid footfalls, reigned for almost three minutes before the princess spoke again.
“We seem to not be taking the straightest route back to the harbor?”
Jean was glad that his companion didn’t feel the need to halt their progress again as she made a question of her observation. “We aren’t. We’re going to detour a little bit through one of the rougher areas that’s away from the sounds of fighting.”
“I see.” Several seconds passed before Lena slowed her pace slightly. “And why is that?”
It took a supreme effort of will for Jean to resist the urge to yank his charge forward to maintain their previous speed. “Just in case someone did follow us from Cheles, we don’t want to take a predictable path when all the fighting is going on. Plus once we get a bit closer to the harbor on this route we should start seeing open taverns and who-… Other businesses. We’ll stand out a little less with a few more people on the streets.”
Lena glanced down at her own clothing and shot a look at the back of her companion’s head that showed what she thought her odds of ‘standing out less’ actually were. Fortunately she allowed Jean to quicken their pace again without further comment. Two streets later found the pair walking down a much more brightly lit avenue, where a large open-air tavern and a brothel were both drawing a significant evening crowd.
“Ah.” Lena said abruptly as she saw the pair of women outside the garishly painted building to her left. “Whorehouse. That’s what you tried not to say.”
Jean blushed deeply as the tactless comment from the princess, and even deeper when one of the working girls giggled in his direction after apparently overhearing.
“Yes, well, it seemed a bit crude to say to a princess.”
Lena shrugged in response. “It is what it is. Even Cheles has its fair share of-…”
The princess was interrupted as, in a lightning quick motion, Jean reversed direction and barreled into his taller companion. Lena’s face was a mask of confusion, followed by more than a bit of pain as the pair landed heavily on the uneven cobblestones. Those emotions vanished in a flash of understanding and fear as the loud crack of a gunshot momentarily drowned out all noise on the street.
Jean came to his feet as smoothly as he had tackled the princess to the ground, his left hand firmly pulling his companion up with him while his right had produced a ridiculously-oversized, triple-barreled, pistol from somewhere. The Pelican crewman fired two quick shots at a group of men that Lena hadn’t even noticed before. One dropped soundlessly to the street while a second fell screaming. More than slightly shocked, the princess let herself be half-pushed and half-carried through the doorway of the brightly painted brothel. A volley of return fire threw splinters off the doorframe and into Lena’s hair as she was shoved inside and off to the left, with Jean dropping unceremoniously to the right.
Lena was quick to produce her own weapon, one of the compact Clockwerk pistols that she much preferred to the brutishly loud firearms. “You have excellent eyes, Mr Russell. I never saw them coming, and I swear one of those last shots was so close I could feel the wind as it pa-…” The princess trailed off as she realized that the side of her dress was quite liberally splashed with crimson.
A moment of panicked checking found no matching injuries to go with the stain, and then a look of horror flashed into her eyes as she turned to look at her companion. Somehow Jean wore a grim smile as he pressed futilely against the massive hole in his stomach. “Yes, your highness. I think I caught a bit more than the air, unfortunately.” In spite of the pain evident in his voice, the lanky man managed a small smile at his own grim humor.
Horror immediately gave way to ironclad resolve as the princess pulled herself up and stepped calmly across the doorway to where her companion lay. The pistol in her hand was a masterwork of craftsmanship, and it showed as the tiny dart it fired flew unerringly to tear completely through the throat of the nearest attacker; the other men quickly dove for cover.
“Come on, Mr Russell.” Lena extended a hand as if to help the wounded man up. “Get your legs under you. We need to get back to the ship to get the rest of the crew. To get help.”
“Sorry, your highness. But this is as far as I go.” Lena gasped in shock as her companion removed his hand from his wound, allowing the princess to see how bad it really was for the first time as he reached for his boot.
“You need to run though.” Grasping, bloody fingers found what they were searching for and removed a tiny pistol from it’s place near his left calf. And pushed the gun into the princess’s still outstretched hand. “There’s always a couple of backdoors in a building like this. Throw them some coins, and one of the girls will show you.” Shouts from outside indicated that their attackers were attempting to coordinate to storm the building. “You should hurry, they’re going to get their nerve up again soon.”
“I am NOT leaving you here to die, Mr-… Jean.”
Jean smiled up at the stern expression and the tears hiding behind thick-lensed glasses. “Yes, your highness, you are. It was… It was a unique experience, serving as your valet.” With those words, and a painful gasp, the brown-haired man rolled out from his reclining position and into the doorway.
A shout of fear from outside was cut short by the last, thunderous, blast from Jean’s handcannon. Then the mortally wounded man was shredded by a hail of return fire.
A loud gasp for air and a series of coughs rang out through the quiet harbor as Del kicked his way to the surface to clutch the side of his ship. The young man caught his breath, then began searching frantically about him in the water, looking for some sign of his companion. He was absolutely certain he had pushed the red-haired former prisoner through the concealed panel into the small smuggling hold ahead of him. Particularly as he clearly remembered her surprised cry and the unexpected splash that followed it.
Can’t believe the hidden hold sprung a leak. The captain is going to be furious about that… When he’s done being furious about everything else. Now where the hell did… Del’s line of thought trailed off as he remembered his own, frantic, struggle to find a way out of the flooded hold in the pitch darkness. And he’d actually known about the removable panels on the hull that were usually used to load it.
Horror etched its way onto Del’s face as he glanced down into the dark waters he floated in, and pondered diving back under to try and save the redhead before slumping against the Pelican’s hull. The dark-haired man knew he’d never be able to blindly find his way back through the water in time to save the former prisoner. A depressed Del floated against the ship for several seconds before the information from his senses pierced his sadness.
It’s quiet. The realization that he couldn’t hear ANYTHING from the ship sent him away from the hull; to clamber up the dimly lit dock and make his way back to the Pelican. No sounds of the berzerker destroying the ship, no screams, the damned thing either wound down or someone managed to destroy it. Del shook his head as he tried to make his way as stealthily as possible back onto the Pelican, not quite able to conjure the mental image of someone actually breaking a berzerker with only the small weapons he’d seen carried.
The walk through the eerily silent ship, and the gory remnants of the dozen or so men that had attacked it, left Del with the absolute certainty that he was going to have nightmares about the scene for years. After what felt like an eternity of careful, quiet creeping later, Del found himself back in the main cargo hold. Clearly visible in the brightly lit space, the crimson-stained Clockwerk monster stood leaning against the very panel he and Jannis had escaped through. The engineer’s assistant almost turned and bolted again, but forced himself to instead remain very still and to listen. Interminable seconds ticked by before the young man let out the breath he’d been holding in. No whirring, no clicking, no grinding of gears. The Clockwerk had wound down, and the berzerker was no longer a threat.
Edward Damini wore an angry scowl as he and his companion turned a final corner and found themselves finally arrived at their destination. The street in front of the large tavern looked like a small war had broken out. A patch of roadway just outside the tavern was actually on fire, two bodies lay motionless in the street, and eight men, two of whom sported obvious wounds, crouched on either side of the building’s large door or near the massive street-side window. As the skyship captain and his first mate approached further, two of the men came out of their cover long enough to fire at the occupants of the building. Four shots from outside that were only returned by a single shot from within.
“I think our crew is running out of ammo.” Olna made her observation quietly as she widened the distance between herself and Edward, not incidentally putting herself close enough to a narrow alleyway to take cover if needed.
“Good thing we brought enough for everyone.” Edward’s steps were still slightly unsteady from his earlier activities in the evening. Fortunately the combination of a brisk evening walk and the ever-mounting anger he felt at having himself and his entire crew under attack was doing a marvelous job of sobering him up. Without saying another word, the middle-aged man raised the revolver he’d acquired the day he’d accepted the strangest job offer of his career.
Four shots echoed through the street in rapid succession, and two men slumped lifelessly against the wall that provided no protection from an enemy at their rear. Startled shouts and screams erupted from the survivors as they quickly realized their dilemma and tried to turn to shoot down their new attacker. Two more shots rang out, and two more fell as Olna officially joined the battle, and the remaining four men panicked. The two men nearest the window simply fled away from the new attackers as quickly as their legs could carry them. The other two nearer the door actually ran into each other as they attempted to bolt in terror, causing them to fall in a tangle almost directly in front of the entrance.
An instant after they hit the ground, a burning bottle crashed into the pair, followed by several more gunshots from inside the bar. Olna watched the last pair flee after a glance at her captain saw him shaking his head in response to her unspoken question.
Edward finished the walk up to the tavern his crew had picked for their night of revelry, giving the burning bodies a wide berth as he made his way to the window instead of the door. “Everyone still alive in there?”
Relieved faces looked back at him from within the room, several of them belonging to people he’d never met before. A quick survey showed all his people accounted for, though a few were noticeably the worse for wear.
“Aye, captain. Missing a few bits, but still kicking.” The reply from Sam Redst was quite a bit louder than necessary, though considering the gunfire in an enclosed space (and the fact that the man seemed to be missing an ear) that wasn’t much of a surprise.
“Orders, captain?” The massive form of Chea stood from behind the bar as she spoke, setting down a pair of glass bottles with unlit rags poking from them.
“Pick up any weapons and ammunition that look usable. We were attacked, you were attacked; odds are they attacked Jean and the princess and my ship as well. Sam, Antony, Gil, Kristina; you’re with me to take back the Pelican.
“Chea and Santos, you’re with Olna. Find Jean and the princess and get them back to the ship.”