Olna Dahl stood on the deck of her ship and stretched her lanky frame in the mid-morning sun. Faintly audible over the din of morning traffic in the busy port, the sound of thunderous snoring rose up through the deck beneath her.
Good gods, how the hell do any of them SLEEP over their own racket? Oh right, enough whiskey to drown a small village. The navigator turned first mate winced as the thought of alcohol caused a slight twinge from her own, relatively mild, hangover.
“Cut the lines and prepare to launch!” Olna’s attention snapped out to the docks around the Pelican as the distant shout drifted across the deck.
That sounded almost lik-… The blonde woman’s train of thought abruptly derailed as several gunshots rang out from somewhere to starboard.
“Dammit Olna! Cut the lines and prepare to launch!”
Olna stared unblinking for a long second as she realized it was, in fact, her captain yelling at her. The middle-aged man was running flat out, or trying to at least, as the large wooden trunk he was dragging seemed to be slowing him down a bit.
The first mate, finally deciding that this wasn’t some bizarre waking dream, sprang into action. A hand-axe sat in a cradle next to the heavy mooring lines for just such occasions, and it was short work to hack the thick ropes away. Olna turned and sprinted back towards the center of the ship, turning the hatchet around in her hand as she did so.
“EVERYBODY UP!” The skinny blonde woman managed an impressively loud bellow as she hammered the blunt side of the axe into the much-abused brass bell that hung near the middle of the ship. “ALL HANDS, UP AND TO YOUR STATIONS!”
More shots from off the ship punctuated the first mate’s wakeup call, and the woman ran back to the railing with her own pistol drawn to see who was trying to kill her captain today.
She noted with relief that the man was still up and running, having closed most of the distance to the ship, and seemed to be accompanied by a taller figure wearing a FAR too large coat. As Olna looked further back, she spotted one prone figure on the newly crimson cobblestones. Another gunshot drew the first mate’s attention further back, to note two more pursuers behind her captain.
“Frederich! You better be awake and warming her up, we’re going to have to leave in a hurry!” And I don’t think we’ll be welcome back any time soon. Olna drew her own pistol and braced her arms on the railing, aiming her weapon carefully.
The precisely placed shot struck the leading pursuer in the leg, dropping him screaming into the path of the second man. “CHEA! Get some men up here, the captain has a guest and might need help with the luggage. Also, prepare for boarders!”
Two men staggered blearily up onto the deck out of the hold just seconds after her shout, one holding a blunderbuss and both blinking dazedly at the sudden sunlight.
“Ramp! Move! NOW!”
The order snapped the two men into movement, and they converged on the ramp at nearly the same time as their captain and his oddly dressed companion.
“Gil… get this… to guest… quarters.” The out of breath captain ordered the closer man to take the oversized trunk as he made it to the unsteady ramp. “Sam, escort our guest… down to quarters.” The older man claimed the oversized weapon from his crewman as he finished.
“OLNA! Get us out of here!”
The first mate darted from her position near the railing to take her place at the wheel and grab the speaking tube that rested there. “Frederich, maximum lift, we need to get out before we pick up any more passengers.”
“Lifting!” The cheerful tone of the engineer seemed out of place in the situation, but the furnace fired up immediately and the first mate smiled at the familiar sound of the canvas above her filling with hot air.
The deafening boom of a blunderbuss firing caused the first mate to flinch, but she kept her focus on the area in front of the now rapidly rising ship as she waited for the steam drive to finish heating. Come on, come on! I need to steer or we’re going to run into something important and the Clockwerks on the walls will start shooting at us too.
The blonde woman’s knuckles were white and her teeth gritted as she prayed for the propellers to start spinning. Finally, the rumble beneath the deck changed in pitch and Olna felt the lurch as the Pelican was finally under power. Minutes later, the woman finally relaxed as the ship cleared the outer wall of the city.
“Good work, Olna.”
“What the hell just happened, captain?” The lanky woman turned her attention to the still-winded man behind her.
“Did we get all the food and fuel fully restocked?”
“Well, more or less, captain, bu-…”
“Did Frederich find those parts he said he needed for the secondary furnace?”
“I think so, but he-…”
“Excellent. Set course for the western coast, Olna. I need to speak to our passen-…”
“CAPTAIN.” The first mate screamed at the man in front of her, apparently fed up with his interruptions. “What. Just. Happened?”
“We were hired to take a somewhat high profile passenger out of the country. Capari, to be specific.”
Olna stared at her captain for several long seconds as she waited for more. Seeing no more information was forthcoming, the first mate spoke again through clenched teeth. “We have no cargo, the crew had no real shore leave, and I think we’re never going to be allowed back into the largest trade hub on the continent. Who the hell is our passenger? The King of Cheles?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Olna. It’s only the crown princess.”
Princess Lena Malaire perched uncomfortably on the hammock in the cramped quarters she’d been led to, and waited uncertainly. How did my brothers’ men keep finding me? Maybe… No, the captain would have just handed me over or shot me himself if he wanted to. A loud knocking at the door drew her attention away from her thoughts.
“You may enter.”
The door swung inward and Lena watched the sandy-haired captain enter, followed closely by the blonde woman she’d seen on the deck as she boarded.
“Princess Lena Malaire, I’d like to introduce you to my first mate and navigator, Olna Dahl.”
The dark-haired girl nodded at the other woman as she was introduced. Olna stared for a second and then dug in her pocket, producing a small silver coin and holding it up to stare intently at it.
“Good gods, you really are, aren’t you?” Lena tried to keep her expression neutral in response to the first mate’s incredulous stare.
“Of course she is, Olna. You know I never lie and only bluff at cards.” Edward smiled hugely in response to the glare the blonde turned on him. “But back to the point.”
The older man turned his full attention back to the Princess, and Lena tried to sit up a little straighter on the hammock as the mood in the small room turned more serious. “I hate to be this blunt, your highness, but I’m afraid we have to handle the payment for your passage immediately.”
“I don’t understand, captain.” The Princess bore a genuinely confused expression. “We already negotiated and agreed upon the price, it seemed to be wholly to your satisfaction.”
“The price was agreed upon, highness, but payment needs to be arranged before I can order my crew on a months-long voyage out to the Capari Islands.”
“Oh, of course captain.” Lena carefully extricated herself from the hammock and stood to walk over to her trunk. “Twenty pounds gold and ten times that in trade value, correct?”
The raven-haired woman noted the first mate’s eyes widen considerably at the stated price. “Do you have a scale?”
A glance from the captain sent his blonde companion from the room, to return a moment later with a well maintained merchant’s scale. Lena opened her trunk and, after a moment’s searching, began producing shining yellow bars from within. Four bars, quickly confirmed as five pounds each, were stacked in front of the now smiling captain and his flabbergasted first mate.
“I assume this is sufficient for the cash payment?”
“Perfectly acceptable, your highness. Where do we need to divert to pick up the remaining payment?” The captain’s question drew another confused look from the Princess, but understanding dawned before either captain or first mate could prompt her.
“Oh, we won’t need to divert at all captain!”
“So… where will we be getting the remainder of our payment, highness?” Olna sounded less confident than the captain when addressing the dark-haired royal. “Two hundred pounds gold worth of trade is… substantial.”
Lena turned back to her trunk and began shifting the contents around, as if searching for something. Olna and Edward exchanged a worried glance as the shuffling continued for several minutes. Just as the captain was about to speak, Lena pulled a heavy, black-bound tome from the trunk and placed it gingerly on the floor. “This should be more than sufficient, captain.”
Olna stared at the book for a long moment, then began to laugh. “Princess, I don’t know if you understand how much two hundred pounds of gold really is. A single book is… not going to be worth that much.”
Anger flashed across the Princess’s face at the first mate’s speech, but she quickly regained her composure and turned to the captain. “I assure you both, you should have no difficulty obtaining at LEAST the agreed upon price for the information in this tome.”
Curiosity overtaking the captain’s features, he stepped forward and hefted the massive book up and over to the room’s small table. The flimsy platform groaned in protest at the sudden weight placed on it, but held together as Edward opened the cover and began flipping slowly through the pages.
“Princess? This appears to be a book of schematics.”
“Exactly so, captain!” Lena was obviously pleased that the older man had immediately recognized what he was looking at. “It’s generally accepted that the Clockwerk inside of Cheles is twenty to thirty years more advanced than anywhere else in the world, yes?”
The captain nodded as his expression went blank with shock as he realized what was implied by the book in front of him.
“Wait, what? Clockwerk schem-…” The first mate wasn’t quite as fast reaching the conclusion her captain had, but her questions rapidly trailed off as she arrived there as well.
“These aren’t the NEWEST schematics, mind you. The newest designs in there are almost three years old, but it should still be sufficiently valuable, based on the number of spies and thieves we had to clean out of the libraries every month.” The Princess looked earnestly at the stunned man and woman.
“So, we are agreed that this will cover the payment for passage to and from Capari?”
“Yes, your highness.” The captain and first mate answered in unison. The older man’s voice still somewhat leaden with shock, while the blonde woman’s tone carried barely contained excitement.
“Olna, please inform the crew. Best course to the Capari Islands, if you please.”
“Aye, captain!” Lena watched the first mate retreat rapidly from the room, and faintly overheard the woman cheering in the hallway.
“We’re gonna be rich!”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN SHE GOT AWAY?” The deafening question from the powerfully built man shook the walls of the room, and left the three figures standing in front of him flinching away.
“Renton, how many men did we have inside the palace?” The man’s tone was quieter, but carried just as much menace as his earlier shout.
The indicated man flinched again, but found his two compatriots had stepped quickly back leaving him facing the larger man alone. “Prince Olver, pleas-…”
“Two, in the palace my lord. And another three within the city.” The man nervously wet his lips. “Our men are not the only ones that failed, highness! Prince Gregor lost at least one man, and Pr-…”
“I do not CARE about the failures of my brothers.” The Prince accompanied his interruption by striding forward and seizing the cowering man by the throat. “I only care that I was ASSURED that our men would be in place and ready.”
The panicked man gasped and began to flail wildly as the much larger Prince clenched his grip tighter, but his struggles quickly proved in vain. Olver let out a final roar as the smaller man’s neck gave way with a wet *crack* and he flung the lifeless body away.
“Simon! Tell me you have better news than Renton did.” The next man in line swallowed nervously as his liege’s attention fell upon him, but stepped forward and spoke with more confidence than his former colleague.
“My lord, the troops march ahead of schedule to besiege Prince Milo’s holdings to the west.” Simon straightened his posture a little more as he saw his Prince relax his stance slightly. “We should have our men in position to take your oldest brother’s city from him within the week. As his own forces haven’t moved to interfere yet, at this point the only substantial difficulty will be overcoming the Clockwerks soldiers at the city itself.”
“Good. Make sure everything stays to plan. Davis?” Prince Olver’s tone no longer held any trace of his earlier rage, though the corpse lying on the floor remained a pointed reminder of the royal’s instability.
“Prince Gregor has fled his city, my lord. All our agents are in agreement on this.” The last man hesitated for a moment to gauge the Prince’s reaction. Seeing no sign of danger, he continued. “The timing indicates that he was also informed in advance of the King’s decree, and has opted to take the coward’s path.”
“How long until my banner flies over Freeport, if my brother has fled?”
Davis coughed nervously as he sought an answer to the question that wouldn’t result in him joining Renton on the floor. “My lord, Freeport is a hive of competing factions and criminal groups. Your brother never truly ruled the city in anything but name. It would be a… significant diversion of resources to try and claim the city at present.”
Prince Olver’s expression turned very still as he stared forward for a long moment, and Davis began worrying about his own future by the time the large man finally spoke again. “Would either Tyler or Milo be able to claim the city if we do not?”
“They COULD, my lord, but it would cost them similarly dear resources that would ultimately do more damage to their positions. Of this, I am certain, highness.”
“Very well. Both of you, find a replacement for Renton. Make sure the new man is competent enough to track down my sister and finish what should have been the easiest leg of my road to the throne.”
“Yes, your highness.” The two men responded simultaneously and then fled the room as fast as decorum allowed, both relieved to have escaped another briefing with the War Prince in one piece.