The Red City
They rose higher than ever before, piercing the first layer of golden clouds and skidding into the next. Here where clouds glistened in the morning wash, it was a place where few ships could go. And through the windows, small and fogged, it was a sight few below the clouds would ever see.
What came next less so.
For the Hourhand was dwarfed by the thing that flew effortlessly beside it. So large, it seemed to drag the sky behind it, making low and alien sounds all the while. Jing Mon Ceros, the whale city in the sky, ripped through the clouds in large fin strokes. Ahead of the whale’s carapace of countless silver plates, glinted the whale’s massive likewise silver horn, which was marred only by the countless crimson rooves of the city proper.
It was a tapestry of red, that city upon the whale. The streets were packed in some places and left wide in others, the largest spaces were of the four main roads that led to the tall palace in the middle. But that structure was no Veracian noble house, but rather a collection of pagodas similar to those found in Kura. Four towers with layered rooves sat in cardinal corners with one large and girthy tower boasting the center. There were docks he assumed for clockships positioned at the top of the main tower but instead of ships, Tig saw something very peculiar indeed.
Men dressed in fine silks floated onto the terrace under the guise of flying red umbrellas. They landed to ceremonial bows of retainers as the shadow of the Hourhand covered them briefly. Then came the stares, both form those atop the tower and from far below.
Mor’de’s flagship was hardly something that could be hidden. It sifted through airs thick with smokes and spices and steam, swooping dangerously low towards the only true clockship dock in the city.
The landing sat wide and open over the edge of a large pit dug into the mechanical whale’s flesh. Close to it, the charred ruins of a once prosperous embassy wilted into view. Scores of stationed navy soldiers ran to the edges of the pit, calling joyously to those on board. Through his ruddy window, Tig spotted the man who expected them.
His bony cheeks and black hat were unmistakable. Though now Tig knew his name. Admiral Mor’de, one the four strongest members of the Imperial Navy, stood ahead a horde of navy soldiers.
The ship shook and Tig slammed into the window face first. Snickers followed as he popped himself from the glass.
“What you get for hogging the window,” said Gemjo.
Tig wordlessly pointed at the window beside him.
“Aye, but that one lacks the chair you’re on. Expect me to stand, Chitik?”
“Funny. You seemed more than inclined to sleep on that bench.”
The room the ever kind Reginald took them to was not as grandiose as Tig first thought it be. It had a table, a bench near the lone door, two windows and a three legged stool. One leg was crooked.
The place was as large as two moderate prison cells with far less the accommodation of one.
“I think I know what Reginald meant by ‘prisoners’,” complained Tig to the rattle of his chair.
“You get used to it,” sighed Remy.
He looked to her apologetically. “Right, we did kind of-- sort of-- capture you,” said Tig.
She frowned at him from where she leaned, “And you shall pay dearly for it. All of you,” she addressed though most acutely at Gemjo.
Their latest quarrel was about the bench and how Gemjo had taken the space of three to sleep on. Franco sat by her feet, glancing scarcely at the window.
“Is it over?” he croaked.
Back first upon the ground, the Professor answered, “Feel the shaking, mate? We’ve made port.”
“Tik?” asked Franco.
“He’s right,” said Tig watching as various cylinders connected to the hull below. “Seems they’ve made anchor.”
“Oh hours finally! That felt much longer than the short man said it would.”
“Shorter, actually,” added Remy, “I kept count.”
Gemjo sat up to a stretch, “Well however long it was, we’re here and we’re expected, which leaves us with options.”
“You’re plotting aren’t you?” said Remy.
“Any problems, rich witch?”
“Several,” she puffed. “I’ve no intention of colluding with pirates.”
“Oh then by all means, go and break bread with a bloody admiral of the Imperial Navy, one mind you, with a suspiciously large number of soldiers.”
“The embassy was sacked,” quoted Remy.
Gemjo raised a mocking brow, “So the wise thing to do would be to increase military presence? No, the only meeting we can expect following this admiral is with death. I say we lose them here and now.”
“Perhaps feign an interest in touring the city?” suggested Franco.
Gemjo nodded, “Not bad.”
“Allude to a potential relative perhaps?” added Tig.
Gemjo hummed pleasantly, “Clever, chitik.”
A bottle toasted the air, “A want for uplander drink!”
The bottle fell away and minutes passed before the girl with steel hair nodded to herself.
“We’ll ask to tour the city,” she decided. “Then hide away.”
“Surely they’ll send an escort,” said Tig.
“Worry not. Depending on the escort, I have a plan to evade even that.”
“Multiple escorts?” entered an unlikely Remy.
“Doubtful, considering their current situation.”
“Let’s hear it then,” started Franco, “this plan of yours?”
The door clicked and Gemjo spoke quickly, “I’ll lead.”
Salamon’s dwarfed figure appeared on the other side. His eyes low and stern, “We’re here.” He reported with un-characteristic joy. “On your feet, Cap-i-ton awaits! Yes. Yes!”
Gemjo forced a laugh she leapt to her wolf feet, “hold, good captain. Before we meet your admiral, how abouts we tour the city? It is only right, as your ‘cap-i-ton’s’ honored guests, that we’d be granted one.”
All joy in the man’s voice died to the lone question, “No. You go now.”
Gemjo’s smile became a twitching one, “Surely he would understand?”
“No. You go now. Yes.”
Gemjo clicked her tongue and sneered to the side.
“Wonderful plan,” goaded Remy.
The Five of them trundled out of their mock chambers down the hallway to a main corridor and to the stairs that led to the bay. After minutes of ordered marching, they came to the bay where the witch doctor they had known weeks ago stood before them. No longer was he the prisoner postured on the other side of a grimy wall. Now he was adorned in a tattered black cloak trimmed with gold. His hat was still pointed and black, but now with five gold stars upon it, marking his position.
“Greetings my friends,” he said to them as they neared. A crowd of high ranking navy shuffled away to make room. “We meet again undah bettah circumstances, dough not da circumstance I wished fa. I could not leave dis place while da crisis continued ya see, so I had ya ferried here. I hope dat did not trouble ya, eh?”
Salamon sallied to his side, “No further from the truth, cap-i-ton! We liberated them from witch doctors after your life, yes yes.”
“Aftah my life?” Mord’de pressed his head down as if to contemplate the weight of that. “Did you capture dese men?”
Salamon nodded, “In the event you wished to question them, we thought it best to spare their pitiful lives. They, along with another prisoner, are on route to Rinrinra as we speak.
“Release dem,” waved Mor’de.
“Dose who taught it wise ta go afta me, I mean. By all rights, while dey target my life, dey’ve broken no laws. Besides, I’ll need dem later for my plans,” he smiled quickly as that drew looks form the gathered company of five. “You’re curious as ta what dose be, I’m sure. Sa allow me to indulge ya, eh?”
“Admiral!” started several voices at once.
Mor’de raised a hand.
“Dese few saved my life. To know a simple plan is but a courtesy.”
One of his officers, a full turn woman with shot hair stomped to Tig and lifted him by the collar. Tig wheezed as he tried to decipher why he alone had been chosen by her wrathful grasp.
“Listen well, whelp. If you let out even a word of the admiral’s plan, I will end you. Your friends to.”
“Oi mate, be careful with him.”
Tig managed a smile at the Professor, grateful for his aide.
“A Trimbly that one,” continued the drunk. “No telling what he’d do.”
Tig let himself dangle for a moment. He thought himself a fool for believing, if even a moment, in the man. He shook his head, coming to terms with that and reassured thenow stupefied woman, “Nothing. I won’t do anything.”
“This one’s a Tribmly?” said the woman, lowering Tig slightly. “So that’s why you summoned him.”
The admiral smiled as he turned to the Professor ever slightly, “Well, it wasn’t fa him alone.”
The woman eyed the Professor for several endless moments before letting Tig go.
“I see,” she said simply before directing the others. “Disperse. You’ve wasted enough time waiting here. You have your orders.”
“As you have yours, Marcel,” said Mor’de/
Several salutes followed then a mess of steps as the officers ran to where they were needed, including Marcel who left hesitantly.
Mor’de bowed slightly, counting them with his eyes, “You have one more dan I expected, but I’ll let her come all da same. Wit me.”
“Cap-i-ton?” started Salamon.
“Excellent work finding dem, Salamon, but ya job be done. We’ve rented a sizeable warehouse by da second dynasty, ferry da third and second fleets dere until furdah instruction. And Salamon, do sa discreetly.”
Salamon saluted, “Yes Cap-i-ton.”
Mor’de directed them towards the exit as Salamon left them.
“Shall we?” said the Admiral.
They left with him wordlessly. Gemjo, who followed the closest, seemed lost in thought and visibly frustrated as she chewed on one of her nails.
Tig realised that out of all the possible escorts, the one she did not consider was the admiral himself. Or perhaps she did, but not so soon. Just as they wandered out onto the steel walkways and the red of the city stole his sights, Gemjo quit her nail biting. There was a light in her that distracted him for the city sight and a smile which kept him there. She had a plan. It did not matter what it was or how she intended to execute it. All that mattered was when.
He slowed until he was beside Franco. That was all that mattered if Franco did not ruin it first. The man had balled his fists from the moment Mor’de first spoke. His brows were narrowed, the point of his ridiculous haircut tilted threateningly at the admiral. His enemy, whom he swore to defeat, now walked seconds away. And yet, despite all that he swore for, he could do nothing. Tig could tell the matter his fight with the witch doctor had taught him some reserve. Even Franco appreciated the strength of the man now before them as lines of navy saluted on either side.
For generations the navy admirals consisted of the four strongest and well renowned members of their military order, owing much to their power over the people. It wasn’t the everyday navy soldier nor the contingent of troops posted in every town that kept that peace, rather it was the admirals and their forces directly under them.
Tig had thought countless times how he’d might even join them if he ever hoped to fight against his family. But the thought of soldiering kept him away on every occasion. No matter where they worked, land or sea, soldiers killed. It was no different from the madness his family took part in. A different master, that was all.
He studied the admiral’s cloaked back as that man took a step for every two of his own. He wondered just how many the happy admiral slew before he reached his post and how many he would before he ended it.
The thought was unsettling. It would have been easy to say the man was a noble sort who tried nobly to spare as many lives he could. But reality dictated a different outcome. Admirals were not praised for their altruistic plights. They were persons to be feared. Any one of them could commit mass murder and very few who sailed the seas could stop them. Better, he thought, to distract himself upon the sights of the city. That was easy enough once they passed the ashy ruins of the embassy. Only black debris remained in the space of two plots. The uplanders worked to clear the wreckage even then.
He coughed a bit on the charred air then wheezed on something that caught his nose. He slowed. The smell was of spices, grilling meats and perfumes, all mixed in a mad frenzy as the black ash of the embassy clashed violently with the lively red streets of Jing Mon Ceros.
Mor’de ran ahead slightly and spun with his arms spread apart. “Welcome,” he cried, “Ta Jing Mon Ceros!”
A few of the uplanders, dressed in odd silk fashions, avoided the strange man, and Tig became engulfed by the overwhelming sight of it. This was where foreign military met the market. Where blue coats melded strangely with uplanders selling their wares and making converse.
Red rooves stretched out lazily overhead while umbrellas clad travellers comfortably hovered to and fro the out of sight top floors of those buildings. This street, named in a sign Tig could not read, seemed endless as it continued to the very heart of the city, the palace.
Mor’de continued, and Tig found himself sprinting to catch up with a nervous Remy tagging close behind.
Gemjo pressed close, as did Franco.
“Far enough to speak,” she hushed gesturing at the Admiral. “Where’s the drunk?”
Tig took look about him as did Franco and Remy. The man was gone.
Gemjo tisk’ed, “Went first, huh? No matter. Plan still stands. If all goes well, we’ll meet on the other side of the palace, part closest to the horn.”
The whale’s massive horn was visible even from there. Ephemeral mists gathered around it, swirling endlessly.
Mor’de had gotten even further now. Gemjo did not miss a beat.
“Hmm, perhaps we need only slow to lose him,” she said.
The four them jumped to that same admiral now behind them who leaned low to meet Gemjo’s eyes. His peg leg tapped the stony path as he straightened to his regular posture, tall and looming.
“Ah me? Heh, na na na, dat won’t happen. I promise ya, as my guests I’ll keep ya all accounted fa. Including ya bronze companion who be visiting a favorite tavern of my soldiers.”
Gemjo, who did not seem the least bit concerned of the admiral’s ability to translocate himself, coughed and pointed at where she thought the drunk had gone, “You honestly think he’s got the cogs to pay for that?”
“I’ll have my people covah it. Lest ya worry.”
Again Gemjo tisk’ed.
The crowd took to dispersing around them as they stood center in the flow of bodies.
“It seems we’re disrupting the traffic,” noted Franco.
“As it seems, as it seems. Den we shall move ahead, eh? Come now,” said the admiral resuming his walk, “Oh and best keep up now.”
Gemjo sighed and did just that, though knowing the seawolf, Tig knew she had not given up. Atleast until the admiral took them to where he wanted them, they had time. And walking in silence answered nothing of the innumerable questions Tig had. Here was a man who stood shoulder to shoulder with three other monsters. Here was a man whose very name invoked fear in his enemies and reverence in his underlings. And yet here was a man who remained ever a mystery.
Tig swallowed before pacing quickly to his side and gazing up at the man’s choice of headwear. He chose his first question poorly.
“Why do you wear a black hat?” he asked sincerely.
“Heh you noticed?”
“Not hard to,” griped Gemjo.
The Admiral tapped his hat with a bony finger, “I was a privateer befa I joined da Navy, kept da hat wit me. No law in da navy saying what admirals should wear.”
Remy, who had been shaking since they entered the crowded streets, managed a few words, “Lawless… brigands…”
“Come now, quiet one, ya wound me. Aye, we’ve been known ta break da laws from time ta time, but we do much ta keep da peace. Take dis city fa example,” he said gesturing about him, “While it may seem peaceful fa now, just days prior dese roads were full in riot. Red hats everywhere.”
“Red?” croaked Tig.
“Ah, but not red hats in da same way we wear dem down dere, dese were fake, non-state issued, and mo symbolic,” the admiral lowered his head and his voice tightened. “Dey speak of blood, da want fa it, fa anudda war wit our people below. Hence why we’re here!” he ended cheerfully.
Franco, whose rage had mostly subsided spoke up, “Isn’t it, you know, counterproductive to then usher in entire fleets?”
“One could say dat, yes.”
“Then why?” asked Franco, more curious than he was duty-bound.
The Admiral glanced at him with his striking orange eyes before facing forwards, “A promise is a promise, but not here. Not while any numbah of spies on eidah side be watching.”
“Where then?” asked Gemjo most likely for her plan.
The admiral puffed, “Ta where dis road leads, mon.”
All four froze in their tracks, heads craning up.
Tig swallowed hard. He moved his head side to side without meaning to, “You must be joking,” he said breathlessly.
“Heh,” laughed Mor’de. “Fa from it, mon.”
The Royal Palace of Jing Mon Ceros awaited them.