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Chapter 1: A Rumour, A Murder & An Invitation
It began with a rumour.
Cultivated amidst the tumultuous commerce of the Docklands, the rumour travelled up the Great Chains all the way to High Kensington, where lips tightened in disapproval above perfumed jowls and china teacups.
It travelled downwards, past the chaos of the Circus and the civilised boroughs to the distinctly uncivilised Lowborough, where knuckles all too used to being cracked were cracked anew in anticipation of debts painfully repaid.
The rumour went like this: Skycaptain Edward Valens was returning to London.
It swept through the halls of Parliament, where finely-flossed teeth were gritted and terse orders were issued over the endless chatter of quills on legal parchment. It reached the vaulted towers of the Gearmasters’ Academy, where Acolytes caught whispering it were beaten mercilessly.
Orders were passed down. Officers were dispatched. In the Docklands, the Constabulary and the Docksec corps actually put aside their long standing animosity to assemble a united force. A skyship was seized, a vessel that appeared to be nothing more than a simple fur-trader. Sergeant Pugnas Flint couldn’t hold back a grin as his men boarded the ship to apprehend the infamous Skycaptain.
When it transpired that the seized ship was in fact nothing more than a simple fur-trader, Sergeant Pugnas Flint stopped grinning.
Below the docks, in the not-so-reputable borough of Hagger’s Stone, the door to the bar Wayward Maiden opened and a tall man entered, wearing a long red coat and a wide-brimmed hat. The bar’s patron, a one-eyed man known as Ebert Eagle-Eye, looked up as the newcomer entered, gave a slow smile, and returned to polishing a glass.
The newcomer walked over to a table where four men were engaged in a game of Shank-me-Neighbour. He sat down, emptied a small purse of coins onto the table, and was wordlessly dealt a hand. Of the four, only the man known as Able Sidney recognised the newcomer, and Sidney quickly took his winnings and left with mumbled apologies, because the man who had just joined the game was Skycaptain Edward Valens, the Nobleman Pirate, Scourge of the Civilised Skies, the most wanted man in all of London.
The rumour eventually reached the one good ear of Gearmaster Elrich Travisham, closeted away in one of the highest peaks of the Gearmaster’s Academy. Gearmaster Travisham ignored the rumour entirely, and sent its bearer away with terse expletives. Gearmaster Travisham was entirely too busy to entertain rumours of pirates.
To a casual onlooker, one only vaguely familiar with the ancient Gearmaster, it would appear that today was just another day which saw him bent over notes and scrolls, a day identical to those that had preceded it for the best part of a century.
Only those who knew the Gearmaster well would notice that today he pawed his codices with unusual haste, would register the uncharacteristic sheen of sweat on his forehead and conclude that this was far from an ordinary day for Gearmaster Travisham. Indeed, this day would prove to be the day that justified all those previous days spent locked in his fusty study. Today Gearmaster Travisham would complete his life’s work.
At one point he stood up, bones creaking fitfully but, it seemed, less painfully than usual, walked over to the door of his study and locked it with a heavy key. Today he could afford no distractions. He stepped with unusual vigour back to his desk, to his piles of books, maps, scrolls and codices. Then, old heart beating with an almost youthful excitement, he began to write, and to draw.
The study was hot, dusty and stifling, making him sweat and itch uncomfortably, but he didn’t dare pause to crank open the window. Bugs crawled over everything, fat sluggish roaches and skittering flying things that seemed to emerge from nowhere. He’d meant to talk to the caretaker weeks ago about the infestation, but his work had consumed all of his attention. Certainly there was no time for that now. He swept away those that crawled across his work, swatted the few that alighted on his desk, and left the rest to do as they pleased.
Hours passed, hours that felt like minutes in the frantically whirring mind of Gearmaster Travisham. Finally, he sat back, breathing somewhat heavily. He looked at what he had drawn; a skymap, inelegantly illustrated but accurate to exact degrees. He rifled through piles of script, checking ancient tomes and hastily handwritten notes, anxiously searching for flaws in his drawing. There were none. A slow smile cracked his already cracked face.
He turned when he heard a chitinous scuttling behind him. He expected to confront an especially large cockroach, and so was surprised to see a dark figure standing behind him, indistinct in the grey evening light. His surprise doubled when he realised he hadn’t heard his study door open, and doubled again when he remembered locking it. His heavy key was still in the lock, undisturbed.
“How did…?” His voice started out indignant and outraged, but then the figure before him tipped up the brim of its great floppy hat and gave its approximation of a smile, and all of the Gearmaster’s surprise turned to terror.
It would be three days before a casual remark in the Academy’s banquet hall would cause the collected Gearmasters to realise that none of them had seen Travisham in a while. Some Acolytes would be sent to find him, and, after much nervous deliberation on the subject of punishment, they would batter down the old oak door to his study. When they finished vomiting, they would find Gearmaster Elrich Travisham, dead at his desk. It was later concluded that he had died from a heart attack, likely a result of his old age and stifling working conditions. They would not find a map, nor would they find any trace of any bugs, bar a few splattered specimens swatted on the desk.
The card game at the Wayward Maiden had come to an end. Decisively, in fact, for every coin on the table was now balanced in an elegant pyramid in front of Skycaptain Edward Valens. Valens grinned, and touched the brim of his hat.
“A fine game, gentlemen. Another night perhaps.”
Two of the three men still sitting before Valens stood with glum grimaces and moved away from the table. The third man, simply known as Shanker, remained seated. Sometime during the game, it had become apparent to Shanker that something was amiss. Shanker’s proficiency at Shank-me-Neighbour was precisely half the reason he was known as Shanker. It was a rare game that Shanker lost, and as he’d been losing consistently all evening, he’d gotten it into his head that he was being cheated. Nobody cheated Shanker. He reached beneath his leather jerkin and pulled out his viciously serrated knife, which was the other half of the reason he was known as Shanker.
A survey of every man in the bar that evening would reveal that no one saw Valens move an inch. All anyone heard was a gristly sort of thud from the darkness beneath the table, and then Shanker’s eyes crossed and he fell forwards onto the table top, dislodging some of Valens’ neatly stacked coins and causing a minor landslide of copper and silver.
Valens frowned at this, then pulled a small cloth sack from beneath his coat and swept his winnings into it. He stood, fastening the now bulging pouch to his belt, and walked over to the bar. Ebert Eagle-Eye gave a companionable nod as he pulled up a stool.
“Still passing off paint thinner as whiskey, Ebert?” Valens took off his hat and set it on the bar, sweeping a thick tangle of dark hair over one ear and fixing Ebert with a lopsided grin.
“Finest in the Stone, as always.” The bartender’s voice was all harsh gravel, but friendly. Ebert didn’t often enjoy the company of his clientele; Edward Valens was a rare exception.
Ebert took a glass from a shelf – the top shelf, where he kept the clean ones – scooped a few ice-cubes from a barrel, and poured a measure of whiskey. “Heard you died,” he said as he placed the drink before the Skycaptain.
“’Course you did. What killed me this time?”
“I heard Bavarian Raiders. Then again, I also heard that the Trade Authority caught up to you at last. That you were beaten to death in a Docksec cell.”
“Now Raiders I can understand.” Valens sipped his drink and grimaced. “Docksec, on the other hand…well, that’s just unedifying. No, Raiders I can live with. Die with. Prospectively.” He waved his drink airily in front of him. “You know what I’m getting at.” He looked around the bar appreciatively. “It’s good to be home. Has the city missed me?”
Ebert snorted. “Yeah, like a beggar in an acid-dip misses his lice.”
Valens gave his drink a nonchalant swirl. “Any rumours of work, hereabouts? I’m in need of a new gig, and a new crew for that matter. The last lot were a right bunch of bastards. Had to put down three mutinies between here and the Parisian Veil. Vengham spent more time beating on our own men than he did the Frenchies.” The pirate captain’s eyes twinkled with mirth. “It was like all of his Christmases come at once.”
Ebert didn’t say anything right away, but looked down at the glass he was polishing instead.
Valens’ eyes narrowed at the lack of response. “Now that’s the look of a man who knows a thing but doesn’t want to tell it. Spill it, Ebert; what’ve you heard?”
Ebert was silent a moment longer, and when he looked up, his one eye had a hard glint to it. “I did get a message. Dropped off by some underworld thug a week ago. Said they knew you’d be back. I said I weren’t so sure. Looks like they was right.”
“Really? News does travel a little faster through London’s…less official channels. What exactly does this message of yours consist of, and from where did it originate?”
“An invitation. From Madam Vulpin.”
A quirk of an eyebrow was the only outward sign of Valens’ surprise. “Old Foxy, eh? Sounds like the kind of invitation it would be…inadvisable to decline.”
“She’s throwing a party. Tomorrow night, at her palazzo. Some real scum in attendance.”
“Sounds like my kind of crowd.”
“No.” Ebert’s voice grew even harsher. “Real nasty folk. Underworld. People traders. Her sort.”
“And I take it her invitation is…explicit? The non-optional kind, shall we say?”
Ebert just shifted uncomfortably.
“You were going to tell me about this, weren’t you Ebert?” Valens kept his voice light, but his eyes were steely serious.
Ever so slightly, Ebert shook his head, not so much as an answer but simply to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. “Best you stay out of it. No good can come of working with that woman.”
“You’re almost certainly right, but still, better to leave that decision in my hands, eh?” Valens drummed his fingers on the bar and looked slightly past Ebert. “Otherwise you might end up having one of her clockwork sadists making it for you.”
Ebert grunted. He pulled away from the bar slightly, long enough for Valens to see him run a hand along the length of the enormous clockwork blunderbuss concealed beneath. “I got no part in her sort of dealings,” Ebert muttered.
“No, but she would most assuredly take a part in yours. I take it there was more to this invitation of hers?”
“Not much. She’s got a job she needs doing. Willing to offer extravagant payment to a suitable applicant. I was assured the payment in question would be to your taste. Exotic, I was told.”
“Is that so?” Valens took a thoughtful sip of his drink, this time forgetting to feign disgust. “Well, I can get on board with exotic. Consider my interest piqued.”
“Better to stay out of it.”
“Better to get the hell out of the city, I should imagine, but Old Foxy has a way of making such meetings into inevitabilities, and I do quite enjoy having all four limbs still attached to my body. Besides which, it would be downright rude for a gentleman to simply ignore such a request from a lady of such…high standing.” Valens’ grin was all gallows-humour.
The two men said nothing for a while, Valens staring into his drink, apparently fascinated with the movements of the vanishing ice cubes, and Ebert shifting his gaze methodically between the glass in his hands and the pirate captain seated before him. The Skycaptain’s eyes had grown steely in contemplation, and his hand slowly traced the straggly line of his beard across his jaw.
Finally, Valens downed the rest of the whiskey in a single gulp, slammed the empty glass down on the bar, then reached below his coat and flicked a gold coin next to it. The coin spun on edge, pirouetting a full circle around the glass before toppling over with an unmistakable ringing that caused several heads in the bar to be raised.
“Well, Ebert, you’ve given me much to think on. There are plans to be planned, and, more importantly, gold to be spent.” Valens turned, picking his hat up from the bar and waving it in farewell before placing it back on his head. When he reached the door, he turned back with a grin. “If Docksec or the piggies call round, which I don’t doubt that they will, do give them my regards, won’t you?” he said, loud enough for the whole bar to hear, before disappearing into the deepening night.
Ebert Eagle-Eye grunted, then picked up the coin from the bar and studied it. It was an unknown currency, solid gold to the eye, and almost certainly worth many times the price of the whiskey. Several other pairs of eyes followed the coin as it travelled to the lockbox beneath the bar, and Ebert fixed each of them in turn with a one-eyed glare until he was sure he’d put all thoughts of robbery out of their heads. Then he allowed himself to smile. There was this to be said for Edward Valens, other than that he was a likeable enough rogue; the man always paid well.