The power of a name, dropped at the right time
Arundel looked like he was sucking on something sour. The drab lines of his face pulled taut over his flat cheekbones as he stared balefully across the table at Rashari. Rashari watched him calmly, letting him stew.
“I want you to pass on a message to LePortail.” Rashari said after a moment of tense silence. “Tell him Rashari says he’s hit two birds with one stone but if LePortail wants the whole nest he needs to do something for me first.”
Arundel reared back, rising half out of his chair. “I don’t work for you boy.”
“No,” Rashari agreed his voice cool and hard, “but you answer to LePortail. Nothing gets in or out of Aramant’s skyport without inspection from the patrol. You clear LePortail’s shipments and he keeps you in cheap pomade.” Rashari sneered, eyeing Arundel’s slick, greasy hair in distaste. “You want me to give you a worthwhile reason to let us go? Well that’s it. Nothing you can get out of me will be worth the grief LePortail will give you if you don’t.”
Silence for several seconds; Fantel found herself counting heartbeats, an all but forgotten audience to the tense stand-off between Rashari and Arundel. After what seemed like far too long Arundel rose stiffly from his chair his long face tense and anger twitching around his eyes.
“Stay here.” He snapped turning and striding for the door. He was out of the room in the blink of an eye. The click of the lock was loud as a gunshot in the silence. As soon as Arundel was gone Rashari let out a breath and slumped in his chair, tension flooding out of his suddenly loose limbs like water from a broken vase. Fantel pushed away from the wall, feeling as though she’d just woken from a fraught and confused dream. She moved back to the table and sat down on the edge again. She wasn’t sure if it was safe to talk yet, so instead folded her arms across her chest and settled for giving him a pointed look.
He grimaced and mouthed: “Later, I promise”. Fantel made sure her frown clearly portrayed that she would hold him to that promise. It was frustrating in the extreme that she could not simply slam him against the wall or shake him by the scruff of his neck until she shook the truth out of him.
Time passed. She wasn’t sure how long they waited. Fantel wondered if the patrol left people in tiny, empty rooms like this as a form of non-violent torture. Ordinarily she wouldn’t be affected but then, ordinarily she had nothing better to do. She had endured capture by slavers and any number of hardships on the road as a ‘Farer, after all. In fact she had thought herself inured to ennui, yet suddenly the years of accumulated patience she had built up seemed to have deserted her. The last several hours had so drastically altered the patterns of her life; she had escaped a Dha-hali slaver ring, been chased through the streets of Remenes, been caught in an aerial fire-fight, held at gunpoint and almost arrested. Compared to all of that being detained in this room was nothing at all, yet, the excitement of the last day seemed to have given her a distinct intolerance for simple boredom.
The door opened and Arundel came back in, a tense smile peeling his lips back from his teeth. His eyes were flinty and cold. “We’re bringing your ship in now.” He said shortly. “She’s taken damage and isn’t flight worthy. Perhaps you’d like to come and take a look for yourself?”
Rashari returned Arundel’s smile tooth for tooth. “I think I would like that.” He rose from his chair carefully, bracing himself with his good arm. Fantel rose as well, easily falling into step beside him as they followed Arundel through identical blank corridors, up a steep narrow stairway, and through two security doors until they ended up in a different hangar bay than the one they had come in by. They arrived just as Vedeca was being towed into dock.
The roof of the hangar was retractable, folding back like a paper fan to allow a large, thick bodied dirigible to slowly descend into the hangar. Vedeca hung suspended by thick tensile cables from the dirigible’s broad underbelly, looking like a tiny baby bird cradled in the safety of its mother’s immense shadow. A series of vermillion lights rippled and flashed along the underbelly and around the edges of the balloon, flickering in a complex dance. Three smaller craft, unmanned helicopters that resembled spindly insects trailing cables like gossamer threads in their wake, floated forward to greet Vedeca as she was lowered into the hangar. Two of the ‘copters clamped their tentacles onto Vedeca’s wings, powerful magnetised suction pads welding them in place as the third ‘copter hovered delicately into position above Vedeca’s cockpit, attaching itself to Vedeca and slotting in snugly under the dirigible’s bulk. Slowly and carefully, the dirigible began de-clamping from Vedeca. The three ‘copters rotor blades groaned and began spinning faster to accommodate the burden of keeping Vedeca aloft. Carefully they dragged Vedeca toward the nearest docking bay, the automated clamp arms already moving to seize hold of the ship. The big, lumbering dirigible began to rise laboriously back into the star-lit sky.
Beside her Rashari sighed, head tilted up to watch the dirigible. “Always wanted to fly one of those,” he muttered, mostly to himself.
Almost silently the roof began to close, blocking out the view of the departing dirigible. brilliant phantasma flood-lights mounted to the highest reaches of the hangar walls flared to life, filling the hangar with rainbow light. Without waiting for permission she followed Rashari over to Vedeca. The ship did not look too damaged, but Fantel could see now where the back thrusters had blown and the tail had taken damage either from the exhaust explosion or from the weapons fire that had clipped the thrusters in the first place. Fantel didn’t get too close, she was no flight engineer after all. She stood in the shadow of the wing as Rashari walked to the edge of the platform, leaning perilously far forward over the safety rail to get a better look at the damage. He muttered something she couldn’t catch, but did not seem unduly concerned.
“You are permitted to gather any personal affects from your vessel,” Arundel told Rashari stiffly, “And then you will be escorted to the train station.”
A tiny smile flickered over Rashari’s lips at that. He nodded briefly in acquiescence, barely sparing Arundel a glance. Vedeca’s damaged boarding door opened with a groan when Rashari pressed the palm of his left hand against the outer hull. Fantel didn’t see so much as a gleam of a lock sigil flash against the paintwork, but then she didn’t expect to. The connection between Rashari and his ship was anything but ordinary. Fantel suspected that touch alone was all Rashari needed to communicate with Vedeca. He waved her forward through the door ahead of him, pulling it closed gently behind them.
“Gods above and below I need a change of clothes,” he muttered slipping around Fantel and hurrying off toward the cargo hold. Fantel followed, she had nothing else to do and was rather of the opinion that it would be unwise to let Rashari out of her sight. All manner of strange and inexplicable things seemed to happen around him, and quite despite herself Fantel found she didn’t want to miss a moment of any of it.
The cargo hold was in disarray. A number of crates had come free of their moorings, scattering all manner of unusual and illicit materials across the floor. Fantel bent to scoop up a flutter of loose papers and discovered that they were bearing bonds from the Bank of Anioch, or at least, passable forgeries of said bank bonds. A capsized crate had spilled a deluge of foam pieces onto the floor revealing the inert form of an aerial camera drone automaton, the sort used by the Adran Imperial army for unmanned reconnaissance missions. Fantel caught a glimpse of a multitude of metal pieces sticking out of another damaged crate that may or may not have been disassembled firearms and necromantic rifles, which, unless she was very much mistaken, were most definitely illegal in Aramant.
“Madame Chimera,” Rashari called to her from across the hold where he was kneeling before the same battered steamer trunk she had seen the last time she was in the hold. He had the trunk open and was rummaging one handed inside. “There’s an overhead compartment set into the far wall, near the tertiary fuel exchange; there should be a leather satchel inside. It has papers we’ll need, and money. Would you mind fetching it while I change?”
Fantel looked around the hold blankly. What in Aldlis was a tertiary fuel exchange? When she didn’t react Rashari paused in his inspection of a cobalt blue waistcoat with grey satin lining to look over his shoulder at her. He must have read her confusion on her face because he jerked his head toward the far end of the hold and the back wall. “It’s over there; the slightly off-colour panel in the wall, next to the big pipe.” He added helpfully.
Fantel nodded and slipped around some of the still standing crates into the far shadows of the hold. She found the wide, tree trunk thick pipe rising vertically from the floor to the ceiling easily enough. After a brief inspection she found the hidden compartment, disguised as a stained patch on the wall, slightly tarnished compared to the gleaming steel of the rest of the hold. Fantel studied the panel but couldn’t see any hint of a hinge indicating the panel could open, let alone a handle. She pondered how she was going to get the compartment open, reaching out to brush her fingers against the cool steel. There was a flash of purple light across the panel, and a tingle of warmth against her fingertips. The hidden compartment opened, the panel pushing up away from the wall before swinging open soundlessly.
Fantel blinked in surprise, jerking her hand away. Inside the compartment she could just make out a humped shape, the satchel, within the darkness. Cautiously she pulled the bag out of the compartment, noting its weight and the faint clink of coins within. She looped the strap of the satchel over her shoulder and reached her hand inside the compartment one last time. Her fingers brushed against a small wooden box. The box was plain, its edges were sharp, and the wood scuffed and untreated. The lid was sealed with a sigil – it stung her fingers when she brushed against it. On a whim she shoved the box into one of the inner pockets of her coat, hastily shutting the compartment hatch. It melted back into the wall in another purple flash.
Rashari had finished changing by the time Fantel stepped around the crates. He’d managed a quick wash as well. Fantel noted a small metal bowl of dirty water and a blood stained washcloth set on the floor beside the trunk. He wore a dark pair of slim-line trousers and sturdy travelling boots, and a fitted jacket of dyed black leather embossed with a swirling pattern picked out in undertones of indigo. The jacket had a high collar, turned up, and dark clasps keeping it tightly buttoned up to his throat. A dark brown full length travelling coat, complete with shoulder mantle, was draped over the top of the steamer trunk. The coat looked well worn and hardy. He gave up trying to comb his hair when he saw her and smiled, eyes alighting on the satchel.
“Found it then? Good.” He ambled over, reaching for the bag.
Fantel stepped back, shifting the satchel further back against her hip. “The compartment opened for me.” She said, arching an eyebrow.
“Vee likes you,” he shrugged with just his good shoulder. “You acknowledged her earlier, so she returns the compliment.” His dark eyes gleamed. “Five years we were stuck under Remus’ thumb and he never figured it out. It took you less than a day.” Rashari beamed. “Y’know, if there was more time for the two of you to get acquainted I’m sure she’d let you fly her too.”
“The ship likes me?” Fantel blinked not quite sure what to make of that.
“She’s not the only one,” Rashari winked at her before turning to tug the coat on, carefully feeding his left arm into the sleeve while trying not to move his shoulder more than absolutely necessary. He whistled sharply through his teeth. “Out you come, you sneaky bugger. Coast’s clear.”
Fantel jumped. Across the hold a small, upside down wooden crate jittered against the floor, bands of purple light spearing through the slates. A moment later the crate bounced up off the floor, falling back to reveal Smith. The automaton zoomed up into the air, quivered in place for a second, and then buzzed over to Rashari, his eyebeam pausing briefly on Fantel in silent greeting.
“Show me,” Rashari ordered and a hatch in Smith’s round underbelly opened. The reticulated arm descended, unfolding as it did so. The Heart of Anoush was clutched between Smith’s pincers. Rashari dropped down into a crouch in front of the extended limb and peered critically at the stone without making a move to touch it. “Bloop-bloop,” Smith said, rotating the wrist of his three pronged hand to aid Rashari’s inspection. “Blup.”
“Really?” Rashari flicked his gaze up to meet Smith’s eyebeam. “That’s…less than ideal. Are you sure?”
“Bloop.” Smith replied, forcibly.
“I wasn’t doubting you,” Rashari shot back, “much.” He shook his head and stood. “Bashi must have been further advanced in his experiments with the stone than we were led to believe.” He frowned, looking pensive, his gaze abstracted.
“Bloop-bloop.” Smith said.
Rashari shook his head. “She’s supposed to be dead…”
“Bloop, blup, bloop.” Smith interrupted waving the stone up and down to emphasise whatever point he was making.
Rashari looked worried. “No, she’s dead.” He repeated a lot less confidently than before. “I had the stone on me for several hours and I didn’t sense anything. Yes,” he snapped waving off Smith’s objection before he could make one. “I concede that it’s possible, obviously Bashi thought there was life in the stone yet, but surely if the old girl was still kicking she’d have done something by now.”
“Bloop,” Smith’s scepticism rang like a bell through the hold. Deliberately he extended the stone toward Rashari, who rather obviously shied away from touching it. “Bloop.” Smith burbled, sounding vindicated. Rashari scowled.
“I’m not doing anything of the sort,” he replied stiffly. “And I am most certainly not in denial about anything. Now stop being difficult and pay attention. Madame Chimera and I,” Rashari waved to acknowledge Fantel, “are headed out to Aramantine. I’ve sent word to LePortail, if he bites I’m sure he’ll be extending an invitation to tea.”
“Bloop.” Smith bobbed in mid-air.
“Of course I don’t trust him. Don’t be absurd. That’s why you need to keep the stone. This whole caper has gone straight to the Pit and it wouldn’t surprise me if the old bugger knows why. I’m not stupid enough to risk letting him get his hands on the stone.”
“Blup.” Smith said shortly.
“Thank you,” Rashari snapped drily. “Your confidence in me is truly inspiring. Now, think you can manage to make your own way out of here?”
Smith quivered indignantly. “Bl-looop.”
“Good,” Rashari smiled faintly. “Once you’re in the city make your way to the Fourth circle. I’m not sure how long it will take me to secure passage out to the Steppes, but I don’t want to dawdle.” He nodded sharply to Smith, who bobbed again in his version of an answering nod, yet some hesitation seemed to remain.
“I’m going to bribe Arundel to keep her safe of course. We’re going out on the Steppes; airships can’t go there. You know that.”
Rashari sighed. “I know that Vee isn’t like other airships. But we don’t need anyone else knowing that, do we? She’ll be safe here. This is one of the most secure skyports in Aldlis, even if someone wants to take her they’ll have a bugger of a job stealing her out from under the Patrols nose – at least once I offer sufficient inducement to compensate their vigilance.” He added as an afterthought. He turned then, business concluded and gestured for Fantel, who had watched the whole exchange with rapt – if somewhat bemused – fascination to precede him out of the hold.
Fantel hesitated, glancing at Smith, who had tucked the stone back inside his shell once more. The light from Smith’s eyebeam painted a bright purple swathe across her clothes as he looked at her.
“He’ll be safe?” Fantel asked Rashari, cautiously, reluctant to ask the question but worried all the same.
“Perfectly,” Rashari assured. “You saw how many automatons they have around here. Smith will fit right in. The patrol won’t notice one more buzzing about, even if he is the wrong make and model.” He shook his head amused. “To be frank with you, Smith is a lot better at getting in and out of places unnoticed than I am. He’s got the perfect camouflage; no one ever suspects him,” he cocked his head toward Smith, who hovered quietly and placidly across the hold, “of anything nefarious. Damned unfair if you ask me.”
“Bloop,” Smith extended his arm once more, the under-hatch popping open. He waved, pincer fingers twitching in the air. Fantel waved back, before she could think better of it. It still seemed wrong to leave him, and she wasn’t sure if that was because she was worried for Smith’s safety or for theirs without him.