“Oi, I see it, mate.”
Tig ran to the prow where the Professor had been staring off into the distance with a bottle as his eyeglass. The outline of an island bounced on the horizon.
The Professor lowered his bottle, “Bit of a mountain, askewed on the left side, looks a bit like a cat’s arse. Aye that be her, Siblisey Island.”
“You’ve been there?” asked the boy.
The man bobbed his bronze head, making his hat tip a little, “No but I had the acquaintance who was born there. Although now that I think of it, a cat’s arse isn’t the only arse that island reminds me of. It’s quite round you see a bit like—right,” He swaggered to the opposite side of the prow, “you’re too young for that, mate. I think. We’ve found land, so how bouts we celebrate a little, eh? A drink.” He said pulling out another bottle. “What a clever suggestion. None for you though, we’ve only just established you’re too young.”
Tig rolled his eyes, “Just how many bottles are on this ship?”
“Never,” stumbled the man, “question how much a sailor drinks.”
A couple of thuds echoed from the lower deck. A quick trip down the railing revealed the cause of it. The barrel was rolling and empty.
“Yo-you’re out of your barrel!” gasped Tig.
The sea wolf glanced up, “You think I was a part of it?”
“You stayed in there for three days, mate,” echoed the disembodied voice of the Professor.
Gemjo yawned, “Could have stayed longer.” She cracked a lazy smile and flexed her arm up while arcing her side. “Is this a better pose, Chitik?”
“I wasn’t staring!” he clamoured.
“No you were only painting an image behind those goggles.”
He grit his teeth and ran down the stairs.
Like him, Gemjo was almost entirely mechanical in her legs and arms. Her feet were that of a wolf, but made of tightly packed steel rods in the same fashion as her arms. Puffy brown breeches billowed from her knees to her waist, which remained tied together by a red sash. A white, sleeveless shirt covered the rest. It was stained from little wash.
She had just finished tying a red scarf around her neck.
“What?” she said tossing the long part of the scarf behind her. “Steel fur does poorly to protect from the cold. And the wet,” she finished bitterly, “hate wet fur.”
Tig’s eyes wandered low as he finished the steps. A tail. She had a bushy silver tail and one made of fur. She hid it almost instinctively and frowned at him.
“You have a tail,” he said with glee. “Can I touch it?”
“No. The less scent of you two I have on me the better when you get captured.”
“Not that the police will sniff you,” countered Tig.
“Not them, me.” She pinched her nose, crafting a nasally version of her already creaking voice. “Less you’ve noticed this entire ships reeks of drink and, uh, other fluids.”
The Professor’s head popped above the railing, “Minutes, mates! We’re minutes away from landfall.”
“You intend to get off here?” asked Tig.
“I do,” yawned Gemjo.
“And you won’t tell on us?” he said with a lower of his head.
She glanced at him for a quick minute, then shifted to the island approaching fast on the horizon. “Ever gone to the police for anything? Questions, that’s all they ask. I’d rather slip into the island as if nothing ever happened. There I’ll find some easy work, maybe sleep a little. The usual.”
“Then it has been pleasure, Gemjo of clan Yuka,” said Tig as he held out his hand.
She did not shake it, only stare at its wooden features and the seep of blue light that crept over top, “Find a navigator,” she said after a pause. “You won’ get anywhere you want without one, especially when a man who leads blindly into the horizon is the one driving.”
“I certainly agree on that,” laughed the boy.
With a nod thrown his way, Gemjo stepped off the boat. Tig heard the splash as he got to the edge.
“Hours!” swore the still looking Professor. “This drink must’ve been laced, mate. I swear I saw her go overboard.”
Tig spotted a black and white fishlike creature jump in and out of the water, “She’s a sea wolf.” He explained, smiling. “They do that.”
Minutes later, Siblisey was upon them. It was an island with a mountain in the distance and a cove at the front. Instead of a beach, Siblisey had a waterfall stretching from one end of the cove to the other. A hundred docks punctured the top of that drop with lifts going to and fro a hundred more harbored ships at the bottom.
As the caravel lurched closer, the limestone structures of the city’s seaside became as clear as the water surrounding it. Most were clean cut square houses with glass domes on top. The first layers of buildings stood no more than a story high, while more and more towards the back crept up higher on the inclines that dug into the natural hills that formed there. Elms and oaks dotted the green expanse behind the town and leading to the mountain, while the island itself proved small enough to be captured in Tig’s goggles just a minute away.
The winds rushed as gulls inevitably cawed. A shadow passed and then another. Tig studied the sky and saw it then. Clockships flew above.
The Professor ran from the top deck by the prow to across the main deck and up to the half deck.
Tig’s eyes kept to the drifting ship above them. Everyone in Verace possessed a small understanding of how those mechanical wonders worked. Of how they followed invisible timelines spread across all of known reality. A part from how those ships floated on air instead of water they held little distinction from regular ships. In fact, the one that just passed them was a caravel. The only visible difference being the presence of a domed glass cockpit situated at the bottom of the bow.
Tig squinted. Past the glare and clouds, he swore he saw figures in blue hats there. Though he had only a moment to scrutinize. For the next he was stumbling.
Their own caravel swished and Tig struggled to find footing. Siblisey, which was only just ahead of them, shifted haphazardly to their starboard.
“Professor, where are we going?”
Tig ran up to the half deck and saw the Professor with his bronze hands clutched to the wheel.
The bronze full turn lifted a finger. “I can explain,” he hicc’ed, “I…” his eyes batted and he fell to the side, turning the ship with him.
Tig clung to railing desperately, “Professor! Wake up!”
The man stirred to that, blinked and glanced at the wheel, “I wasn’t asleep. You were asleep.”
“Mind explaining now?”
“Right this,” he sniffed, readjusting their course, “When one repossesses a ship. That is to say, take a ship that is not entirely in one’s possession--”
“Steal it you mean.”
“No! Wait. Wait. When one steals… damn it. Possess a ship, one does his best to harbor on the thieves’ bay of any island he approaches.”
Tig studied the great sandy rock face on the side of Siblisey that now blocked the view of the city.
“Thieves’ bay?” said Tig. “What makes you so sure Siblisey has one?”
“Mate, every city has one.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“It’s not a good a city then is it? Trust me on this, mate,” he said already drifting. “Keep your eyes fixed starboard, we’ll be there soon.”
The rockface continued. Little bits of verdant foliage cropped up from the top.
“Look, Professor. I think what we need is to go back and… and… hours…”
The rock face led to another, yet none so natural. This one was carved in. It was a cavern that shaded almost all below in perpetual night. Little yellow lights revealed the workings of a harbor further down. Ships with black sails were moored all over.
Tig stumbled back and nearly collapsed by the Professor.
“P-p-pirates.” He stammered.
“Oh relax. Honor among thieves, eh?”
More of the underground harbor came into view as they neared the crooked piers. Shambling huts, seemingly built from the same splintering wood towered above the black water.
The caravel creaked as the piers lurched besides it.
The Professor stepped to the side and tapped the planks a bit with his boots until a plank slid out and a lever sprang from it.
“Ah there it is,” hummed the Professor, pulling the lever.
A loud boom thundered beneath them.
“Good anchor,” said the Professor. “Right. Now what did that barrel girl say again?”
A voice cut in before Tig could answer.
“Navigator,” it wheezed
Tig and rushed to the edge. The Professor sauntered there instead.
Gemjo was leaning by the barrel, wet and puffing. She glared at the Professor as soon as he came into view.
She held up an equally dripping print. It was yellow with blurred words but a very clear image. She had three of them.
Tig clutched his iron jaw, “T-that’s... that’s a—“
“Wanted poster,” she finished gingerly. “One for each of us.”
Clearly then, the reasonable action would have been to hide. But Tig knew he had not done a single reasonable thing since he left with the Professor. So the three of them ventured into town.
Navigating through the pirate infested den to get to above ground was troubling enough. To then want to cross all twelve seas was absurd. Gemjo was right. They needed a navigator. Tig spied at those passing by.
The thieves’ den proved surprisingly docile for those it hosted. Many there were discreet enough, often shuffling by with hands in their pockets and gazes held low. But to ask why they were discreet would lead to criminal pasts. The air reeked of gunpowder and soot. He shook his head. By the way his two companions marched sordidly ahead of him, he figured they’d be seeking the navigator outside as well.
The trio trailed the humble path to Siblisey town. Oaks dominated much of the sides while the road only kicked dust to their faces when the wind blew hard enough.
The Professor led the pack without his jacket, as proud as an alpha. Tig held the middle, overshadowed by the tall and lanky man, while Gemjo, about Tig’s height, walked with the Professor’s coats overhead of her.
A few of the less than honest full turns that passed them snickered at the sight. Tig caught glimpses of their black wizard hats as they did. Only thieves wore black hats.
“You know,” started Tig. “Covering yourself that way does little to detract attention from you.”
She was scowling in the shade. Tired perhaps, annoyed definitely. “A simple job. That was it. A simple job. Guard the boat, one night, go home. Easy. Then you showed up.”
“Talking to me, mate?”
Gemjo tugged the coat lower, “We’re lucky they didn’t gut you as soon as you walked into a pirate den wearing a bloody soldier’s hat.”
Tig shrugged, “We’re lucky they smelled him as well you did. No self-respecting soldier would smell that strongly of liquor.”
The Professor winked back at Tig with a bottle gripped in his hand, “A bottle’s saved me more than once before, mate.”
His iron jaw dropped, “You’re still drinking!?”
“No, mate. It’s empty. Last one to. I’ll mind the gallows should I remain that way. Say,” he stopped briskly. “What’s that over there?”
Tig and Gemjo rounded their eyes to the first building that should greet them. It lay on the outskirts of Siblisey, right before the main stretch of the city.
The Captain’s Wife read the sign.
The Professor positively gulped the air and gushed, “Hours blessed. A pub!”
He was gone a second later, the swinging tavern door telling of his destination. Gemjo quietly paced to the entrance.
“You’re following him?” asked Tig in disbelief.
“Better there than out here.”
She passed the door to jingling bells. Tig sighed.
The air simmered the moment he entered. The stench of bar food drowned out all else, fried fish chiefly among them. Cups clanked and men laughed. To his side he spotted two burly half turns wrestling arms. To his other side, a barmaid sped hastily by and drips of beer splashed on him.
A sea of black hats parted him from the end of the bar. For a building that looked no bigger than a bakery, it was awfully spacious inside. Perhaps the dim flicker of lamps and the stained willows walls made it the way. He took a step, swore he heard a squish. Then another and a man belched his way. He gagged, stumbled and loosely caught himself on the bar counter. Rows upon rows of varying drink filled the case behind the counter.
A tall glass slammed in front of him. A familiar bronze liquid bubbled in the cup and foamed at the top.
He stumbled back.
“You’re too young,” spoke a sonorous voice, sliding the cup away. He looked up. It was a woman. A really burly woman. In fact, she had arms twice as thick as the ones wrestling near the entrance and muscled face that made him gulp.
He could see a thousand gears whirling within those arms that stole his fascination, thick steel bars caging it all in and leading to a face that was carved of wood with high cheek bones. Her black eyes batted with yellow pupils. Tendrils of steel wiring were neatly tied behind her head.
“Leave, kid. This is no place for children.”
“My friends,” laughed Tig. “Yes, uh, my friends are here. Have you seen them? A man in a blue hat, bronze skin and a girl with silver hair and four ears.”
Her bursting arm lifted and he followed it to a commotion coming from the back. Several black hats were gathered there. Traces of light glimmered from between them.
Tig swallowed hard. “Thanks,” he said as he slid to his feet.
He passed by the many black coated wizards on his way, quite easily too, owing to his still small stature. The sounds of cups clanking gave way to cheering intermingled with sneers and an ever present word that repeated itself.
Tig drew his hand across his face, “Really?”
The fighters had cleared an area, the distance between them almost set.
In one corner, stood the still leather clad Professor. He had no hat on, so his coal hairs spiked the air. In the other stood a half turned man. With hair pointed up like a cone. If Tig had seen from the distance he would have though this man wore a hat. This man was bare chested, wore puffy white pants and was in the process of cracking his knuckles dramatically.
Despite his the numerous patches on his pants, his hands were intricate, only turned from the wrist down. They were silver with several turning joints and steam rushing out from the gaps. His chest was well built, fleshy and white.
Tig glanced up. He was shorter than the Professor yet he seemed just as tall as he squared to face the man. Clean shaven with narrowed curled brows, he had a one of kind face. A large triangular nose made most of it while perfectly circular eyes with piercing black pupils gave him a determined look.
“Bets. Taking bets!” cried a familiar Gemjo, walking around the ring. She had the Professor’s hat, now filled to the brim with cogs.
Tig pulled Gemjo aside, “What are you doing?”
Gemjo grinned, “More money the easier the life.”
“Unless you get caught.”
“The moment those two idiots start brawling, we run.”
He blinked at her. Unbelievable. Though the more he thought about it and the cogs she had amassed the more plausible it seemed.
The Professor’s opponent commanded the room.
“You’ve any idea who I am, old turn?”
The Professor shrugged, “No I--”
“Captain Franco, the strongest in the twelve seas and the man who’ll topple the navy!”
Tig clutched his chin. To topple the navy was no easy task, nor a wanted one. Any who claimed so was either a fool or a very dangerous man.
Members of the crowd chuckled as he said that. Tig nodded. A fool then.
Franco continued, not easily phased by their laughter, “You’ve lost the moment you challenged me.”
“We haven’t even started, mate… hic!”
Tig’s eye twitched. Gemjo’s plan seemed more and more appealing.
“See these?” said Franco, patting his shoulder, “Pure muscle.” He levelled a finger at the Professor. “You’ve insulted my maps and so now I’ll show just how strong those muscles are.”
Tig peaked at Gemjo, “Did he say maps?”
“How dare you, mate. All I said was that your maps… hic… reminded me a lot of Beatrice... Benive? No Benjamin. No that can’t be right, Benjamin was her brother. That’s right! Her arse.”
The opposing man turned positively red as he said that.
“Mate you’ve got an eye for painting arses.”
Gemjo’s grip directed Tig away from the inevitable brawl. She nudged her silver haired away from it all.
Tig shook his head. “We can’t just leave him,” he argued.
Tig turned and saw the Professor passed out on the floor, snoring.
Tig sighed, “Fine.”
The crowd burst into laughter, not least among them Franco who now stood with his foot over the Professor’s head and his hands on his hips.
“My very presence defeated him,” he claimed.
The crowd roared.
Tig and Gemjo snuck through the horde of black hats with a hat full of treasure. The bar had another exit near the back, which he had glimpsed upon his entry. It was one of the only entries for unfiltered light, so he noticed it instantly but was otherwise distracted by his task at hand. Now his task tugged him by the hand. She led him through the crowds nimbly with a cogs jingling in her other hand. They were a few black hats away now. The light from the door was close. Escape nigh.
Then footsteps echoed from the front. In an instant, the merriment silenced. Tig and Gemjo stood still, the last of the black hats behind them.
All eyes were turned to the front
The footsteps continued. Tig heard spurs and smelled on overtly expensive cologne. Cinnamon and Lavender.
The new arrival commanded the room. He was a military man by his blue coat. He had a band of blue coats wavering besides him.
“Sergeant Webly,” declared the thin faced man with a cane in hand. “Be at ease, brigands. You are not our tar-”
A dagger wobbled behind him. He turned and saw his hat now pinned to the willow walls. Tig cocked his head past the man, and spotted a pale girl about his age standing there. She had been looking back at the dagger, so she did not see him. Tig cocked his head. With her back as straight as a beam she seemed familiar.
He mouthed the words instinctively, “Le Ricci?”
Webly felt at his head and found it bare. He sighed, “Knew it wouldn’t be easy.” He drew a pistol.
As he did, nearly every black hat in the tavern drew their own. They all clicked.
“At ease,” he repeated. “No need to get splintered and dented over this. I wish only for a man.”
The bartender leapt over the counter and shook the floor as she landed. Webly’s frail marble eyes trailed to as high as she stood, nearly two heads above him.
She spat to the side, and Tig glanced at it. Oil.
There was a long, deadly silence as the woman raised her hand.
“Honor among thieves,” she grunted.
Webly flinched. “Scrolls,” he clamored, “get the scrolls!”
The guns fired. Tig ducked. Silence. No cries of agony, no grims thuds, not even the bounce of bullets. Nothing. Slowly, stupidly, he peaked up in curiosity. What he saw was not something he thought possible. The bullets had slowed to an almost frozen speed.
The ground below Webly begged his attention next. Two white circles were inscribed there and glowing. One was large and covered a foot away from Webly and the other small and placed just around him
Hushed whispers broke out throughout the room. And while most turns were at awe of the frozen bullets, something else glimmered in Tig’s eye. It was the cane. Webly had just twisted the head of the cane and began prodding each of the bullets in odd angles. Not a single black hat, not even the bartender dared approach. Tig squinted as the man’s regiment seemingly abandoned him and shuffled out the room.
Perhaps Gemjo noticed this to as she tugged Tig’s wrist and led him through the forest of black hats. They arrived at back entrance door when Webly finished.
Webly smiled and pointed to the first bullet.
“If I were you,” he mused. “I would duck.”
The spell vanished. Gemjo pulled Tig down and chaos ensued. Glass shattered, wood splintered and voiceboxes fizzled out. It was a chorus of wobbling bullets and it ended in an instant. Tig looked up, miraculously unhurt. All the bullets once aimed at Webly had been redirected and more powerfully so. Just one bullet had left a gaping hole by the entrance. Only half the blackhats were standing.
Webly twisted the cane as blue huts marched back in. The glow of it vanished.
“Search them,” ordered the sergeant.
Gemjo got up, her ears a quick twitch. “We need to leave, now.”
Creaking the door ever so slightly, they ventured out and ran.
They raced down the winding slopes of Siblisey, white stones upon white stone blurred past them. While the regular townsfolk turned to them, not one decided to follow.
Then after minutes of running, Gemjo pulled Tig into an alley. He puffed madly, the lights of his palms coloring his pantaloons blue.
Amidst the deafening palpitations he heard the rush of water. Half turns running, the calls of porters, and the whistle of steam shooting off a distant factory. He sniffed, the smell of cinnamon and lavender still clung to him, but now the smell of nearby bakery was stronger.
Gemjo had been peeking out the alley way. She was close beside him. Sunlight glinted in her hair, while the lack of it left the rest of her body dizzyingly shaded.
“At least we won’t need worry about the cogs I took,” she said.
Tig’s heart sank, “Do you think,” he started, “do you think he’s dead?”
She shook her head, “He was lying down. It’s unlikely. Right now we need to leave. That sergeant Webly, I knew I recognized him. He stops by Verace often. He’s probably here because of us.”
“More precisely the drunk idiot and the ship he stole.”
Tig’s stomach churned. He felt sick. Noxious. He reached for the nearest container he could and let it out. When he finished, he saw pure terror painted on Gemjo’s partially furred face.
“What?” asked Tig.
“The-the hat…” she trailed.
He looked down, “Oh. OH… Well, we could, um, clean it.”
“You clean it,” she shuddered. “For now we need get back to the ship and set sail as quick as we can.”
“I’m afraid that won’t happen, mates,” said an all too familiar voice.
The two of them blinked at the men approaching from the end of the alley. Of the two, the Professor was hung loosely off the shoulder of the other man.
Tig rubbed his eyes, “You’re from that brawl.”
The two man party stumbled to them. The man who was supporting the Professor pointed at his chest, “Captain Franco, yes that is I. The great, the glorious, the… the… by the hours what happened to that hat?”
“Ah. My hat.” The Professor snatched the hat from Tig’s hands and adorned it.
Gemjo nearly gagged to the audible splurge. And Franco unhanded him, jittering while he dusted his shoulders.
The Professor scrunched his nose, “A little wet.”
Gemjo fixed her composure, “Right, we need to get back to the ship.”
“Ship,” quirked Franco. “By the Hours he was right. Ha! I thought it was the mumblings of a drunk man. ‘Help me up’ he said, ‘I’ll take you on my ship’ he said. Good. Perfect.” Franco crossed his arms and nodded curtly, “Then I shall be your captain.”
The Professor had been sniffing a liquid on his finger, “I’m sorry what?”
“Your captain. Captain Franco. What is your goal, friends?”
The Professor shrugged, “Drink.”
Gemjo yanwed, “Sleep.”
Franco stopped on Tig.
Tig lowered his head, “Revenge… I think.”
“Drink, sleep, revenge! Haha! Easily accomplished. I shall give all that you desire so long as one day you aide me is toppling the Navy.”
Gemjo raised her hand.
“Yes, you, furry creature.”
“I’d rather sleep.”
“The navy’s strong,” added Tig. “I would not consider that an equal trade.”
Franco shook a finger, “Oh but I have a plan, good…?”
“Tiguak.” Corrected Tig.
“Yes what I said, Tijook.”
“That’s—no, just call me Tig.”
“Good Tib, we shall travel to the end of the world where the Mad Tinker lives and employ him for our cause.”
“You don’t say, mate. That’s where we were headed.”
Franco puffed, plodding his hands on his hip and buffing his chest, “Tis’ destiny,” he decided.
Steps echoed and cries of soldiers flooded the air. All four them hugged the walls as a score of blue hats rushed by.
Gemjo slouched the moment the soldiers were gone. “Honestly,” said Gemjo, “whether you join us or not is not my concern, right now we need to leave.”
“Savy we run then? I saw some soldiers heading to the thieves’ bay not long ago. Worse I may have also told some of the gents back at the bar how I stole a gold plated caravel.”
“You did what?!” roared Tig. “Did you also tell them it was unguarded?”
The man had risen his bronze hands defensively, “No no, I am a professor of magics, mate, I’m smarter than that… hic. Why, I assumed they learned through deduction. Three of us on the ship, three of us no longer there.”
Tig’s head fell low in defeat, “We’re doomed.”
Franco nodded to that, “Then we must hurry.”
He had almost left the alley when Gemjo clutched him by the wrist. All eyes turned to her.
“Or perhaps,” she said, a smile cracking up her lips, “We don’t.”
It was a ploy most devious.
The four of them stood on the high cliff overlooking the thieves’ bay and watched as their caravel, twice stolen, set out to sea. Only seconds later, a shadow loomed over them. Tig grinned at it gleefully.
It was the same caravel he saw entering Siblisey. Yet now, upon the cliff, he could see the flag of the imperial military fluttering behind it. It had blue background with a white gear with twelve teeth plastered at its midst.
That ship closed in on the caravel.
The cliff was empty of trees and rocks, allowing for an unsullied view of the boats. But Tig was quick to admire those besides him and where they stood as the two ships came into contact. He imagined if any saw him and his companions now they would have caught something very picturesque. They would have seen four adventurers standing atop the cliff face, the dipping sun etching their outlines as they stood.
Yellowing green grasses that grew up to their ankles swayed in momentary bursts of wind. Behind them a dusty path had been cut into the earth leading steeply to where they stood. It was Franco’s idea to go there once Gemjo revealed her plan.
He had insisted they go and once he said it would act as a way to confirm the sea wolves’ prediction, they could hardly disagree.
Franco stood in front of the three of them, “What now, friends?” he asked glancing over his shoulder.
Tig cleared his throat, “We need a navigator. Do you know where to find one?”
Franco laughed, “Hours blessed. I know just the man.”
“As in, as well as yourself?” asked Gemjo.
Another laugh. This one nervous. “Yes?” he answered.
Gemjo and Tig looked to each other. The boy had shrugged while the girl shook her head.
“Good enough,” sighed Gemjo, already retreating from the cliff. She made a listless wave at those behind her and the tops of ears vanished as she descended. Tig had found the sway of her tail hypnotic. The recollection of it more so. The Professor’s retreating form broke his trance.
He was alone was with their would-be navigator. He imagined the man to be staring out into the sea, hopeful, daring and with the look of someone ready to fight the world. What he got was a man panting and nearly gagging.
Franco straightened to the sight of the boy. “Oh, you’re still here… I’m ok. I’m ok,” said the man who would topple the Navy. “The sea, it’s just…”
“The sea?” said Tig.
“Water,” he corrected himself.
“I’m thirsty. Are you thirsty?”
Tig eyed the man suspiciously but nodded all the same. He had just run halfway across an island.
“So. Where shall we go?” began the boy.
“Hah that. Yes that! Ahem. Wait for me by the trail will you?” Franco fashioned a wavering smile. Tig tried the same.
The two stared at each other for several painfully long moments until Tig, tactfully, excused himself. He had made it halfway to the trail when Franco spoke up.
Tig had turned, although wrongfully so. The man’s words had been directed over the cliff along a wind that blew sporadically. They were not for him.
“I’ll become one,” said Franco, his back to Tig, “I promise.”