A spring wind from a bright blue sky raced along the hulls of the airship Brass Griffin and the larger passenger ship, HMS Britannia. It stirred the halo of steam and black smoke that shrouded the two vessels, covering them like a thin veil. A mile below them both, the dark waters of the Atlantic churned in the late July weather of 1887.
The ships were securely joined, tethered by mooring lines and a collapsible chain bridge. It was the Griffin who set the pace; the smaller vessel provided the power and stability to the larger Britannia, who belched black smoke from a ruined propeller. A trickle of crew traversed the suspended walkway, carrying parts and tools to the wounded passenger liner.
Between the knots of crewmen, Captain Anthony Hunter stepped from the chain bridge onto the deck of the wounded passenger liner. Instinctively, he adjusted his weathered brown long coat, then moved clear of the walkway, his tall, nailed boots ringing gently off the metal flooring. Steam issued up through the metal grate, wrapping about the captain for a moment while he looked around to get his bearings. Behind him, the figure of a Charybdian woman – one Adonia Salgado – appeared out of the steam, joining Hunter aboard the Britannia.
Adonia, dressed in a sensible brown riding skirt and wine-colored blouse, pulled a small brass watch from the pocket of the vest she wore. She narrowed her yellow eyes irritably at Hunter, her head full of shoulder-length, snake-like tendrils writhing in response to her mood. The woman snapped the pocket watch closed.
“Anthony, I cannot say just how bad a decision this is!” Adonia told the captain with a stern look.
“Then by all means, don’t,” Hunter replied smartly.
“Anthony!” she retorted. The tendrils of her hair twitched irritably.
Hunter sighed as he turned to face the irate woman. “Adonia, we’ve discussed this,” he began, but the Charybdian woman cut him off.
“Yes, we have,” she said quickly, her Portuguese accent growing stronger in time to her rising temper, “and my opinion has not changed. We cannot afford any delays or distractions! Especially by stopping here!”
Captain Hunter crossed his arms, matching Adonia’s look with one of his own. “Blood and sand, Adonia! I’m obliged to lend aid to vessels in distress.” The captain pointed at the ugly, black, oily smoke that poured out from the Britannia’s rear. “That would be as distressed as one could ever find, short of the bloody ship falling from the bloody sky! It isn’t as if I set course to follow the Britannia from England to New York or Boston or wherever she might be bound! It was pure happenstance that we managed to receive their signal for help. Perhaps you’d like to elaborate as to why we can’t stop here?”
Adonia opened her mouth to reply, her yellow eyes blazing at the challenge; she hesitated, then replied. “I … no, not now. It is a bad time.”
The captain set his mouth in a thin, perturbed line and waved a hand around him for emphasis. “Fine, then we stay and help lend repairs. We leave as soon as possible.”
“If that is my only option, then that will have to do!” Adonia grumbled, folding her arms defiantly over her chest.
Beyond the pair, two crewmen dressed in uniforms of white with blue trim hurried from the chain bridge, each carrying a box of springs and rivets plus a bucket of bolts. Once they had rushed around Captain Hunter and Adonia, they hurried over towards an open hatch. As the men vanished out of sight, Moira Wycliffe – the Griffin’s blacksmith and clockwork engineer – appeared out of the white steam cloud carrying a duffel bulging with tools, parts, and other mysterious paraphernalia. Walking next to her Noel St. Claire, a tall brown-skinned man with a tattooed face, laughed heartily. He slung a similar canvas bag over his right shoulder as he stepped off the chain gangway.
“Are you sure they are not married, mon amie?” Noel asked, his dark eyes sparkling with amusement.
“No, they’re not. Not even a little bit,” Moira replied. She gave the pilot a bright grin, “Though, ya sure can’t tell from hearin’ them, can ya?”
The pair stopped in their tracks as they realized Captain Hunter and Adonia were staring at them. Moira smiled nervously at her irritated captain, “Of course I’m not sayin’ that you or Miss Salgado be inclined in that way. No, not a’tall.”
Beside her, Noel wisely said nothing. The grin spread openly across his face and the mischief that twinkled in his eyes spoke volumes enough.
Hunter sighed, putting his hands on his hips. “Moira, have the necessary parts been offloaded?” he asked sternly.
The lady blacksmith, relieved at the change of conversation, nodded. “Aye, should be. Noel an’ I were headin’ below ta check. If so, we can start straight away with repairs.”
Captain Hunter’s mood seemed to lighten some at those words. “Brilliant. Keep me appraised of what you learn.”
“Aye,” Moira replied. She started to quickly circle around the pair, but stopped as if a sudden thought struck her. “Oh! Cap’n, it almost slipped out of me mind!” She quickly yanked open the duffel bag she carried, and dug around inside. A moment later she produced an oilskin-wrapped bundle which she presented to the captain.
“Thought ya might be needin’ it,” Moira said with a pleased smile. She shrugged. “Well, work’s a’waitin’. C’mon, Noel!”
The pilot gave the lady engineer a slight bow from the waist, “of course, mon amie! I am eager to see what makes this grand lady we are on sing like an angel.”
Hunter opened the package while the pair headed across the deck. The captain’s eyes bulged momentarily as he lifted a heavily modified, but unusually light weight Schofield revolver and gun belt from the package. Unlike a typical Schofield, there was a strange hexagonal-shaped section of the same approximate size in place of the cylinder, layered with rubber-coated wires. Likewise, a small thumb switch sat where the hammer ought to be. Even the grip was different: at the butt end of the revolver, there was a fitted space for a box-shaped cartridge. This matched in size with the neat row of cartridges secured across the wide leather belt.
Adonia covered her mouth to hide a grin, but quickly devolved into laughter. All around them, the nearby crew members of the Britannia ducked aside, giving Hunter a wide berth and a worried glance.
“Moira! What the devil?” Hunter stammered, turning to face the retreating woman.
Moira, now halfway to the hatch leading below deck, turned smartly on her heel, the braid of her reddish-brown hair whirling around behind her. “Thought you’d be needin’ it, Cap’n! Best to be prepared when boardin’ another vessel.” She pointed at the unusual revolver in Hunter’s hands. “That’s a new invention of mine. Careful now, it’s usin’ magnetics to fire off its rounds. Reloads are in the belt! Cartridges really, packed with needles!” Moira waved while Noel wisely hurried down into the dark. The lady blacksmith quickly followed after the West African pilot.
Captain Hunter gaped towards Moira’s retreating form in astonishment. “By thunder, we’re not boarding her for conquest!” he called after the pair.
“And on behalf of Captain Bellgrave of the Britannia, we’re most grateful that’s the case,” an amused, deep voice replied. A tall, strikingly handsome man with light brown hair and a square jaw stepped out of a nearby hatchway. He was dressed in the rich blue uniform of a First Lieutenant, and smiled as he approached. Offering a brief, almost dismissive, salute to Captain Hunter, he extended a hand to Adonia.
“It is good to see you, Mr. Mason,” Adonia replied courteously, taking the young man’s hand.
The lieutenant bowed slightly at the waist, then released Adonia’s hand. “It’s most pleasant to see you my dear, but I was under the impression we were not to meet at all?” The first mate leaned toward Adonia slightly with a frown while he lowered his voice. “In fact, I recall that it would be distinctly risky for the knives.”
Captain Hunter scowled and lowered his voice, as well. “Pray tell, how do you know about the knives?” He immediately held up a hand, giving Adonia a brief suspicious glance. “No, wait. That would be irrelevant.” he returned his attention to the lieutenant. “Perhaps better to ask, why should you care, Mr. Mason? They are safe aboard the Griffin.”
The first lieutenant blinked. “The knives are aboard your ship? I respectfully disagree, Captain,” he whispered tartly. “They are aboard the Britannia, locked away in her safe.”
Captain Hunter blinked. This was new information to him. He gave Adonia a second, piercing look. “Two sets of ‘unique’ Roman daggers?” he asked with a brittle tone. “If I may guess, I suppose they all have similar markings to indicate they were once owned by six Roman centurions – a particular six Roman centurions, I might add – during the reign of Marcus Aurelius?” The captain’s eyes narrowed. “Why do I suspect there is some of your skulduggery afoot?”
It was Adonia’s turn to sigh, then rub her forehead as if she had a headache. “Gentlemen, must we do this here? Out in the open? Right now?” she implored through clenched teeth.
Mr. Mason tugged at his coat to smooth some imagined wrinkle. “The lady is absolutely right. We should discuss this, but someplace more acceptable. We can use one of my wardrooms. In the meantime, Captain, your crew can ascertain if there is anything that they can do.”
Hunter cleared his throat, discreetly placing the package he carried behind his back. “I assure you, Mr. Mason, my crew will affect repairs and be on our way as quickly as possible. Once they speak with your own blacksmith and engineer, they will pinpoint the issue square-away.”
Mr. Mason pursed his lips before he replied. “Ah, about that. It might prove a bit more difficult than you imagine. You see, they are unfortunately quite dead, each from an assassin’s knife in the back. Their bodies were discovered shortly before the main generators detonated. If either of them had any idea as to what caused the machinery failure, it was lost with them when their lives were taken. As for their killer? I am certain he, or she, is still aboard this very moment!”