The Britannia’s wardroom was a long affair, with deep reddish-brown cherry wood panel walls trimmed in simple brass that held a hint of overlooked tarnish. Electric-Arc lanterns emanating their customary blue-white light were bolted at regular intervals along the walls. The room was more narrow than square, with a set of chestnut counters crammed against the starboard wall to hold linens and other amenities. The other wall contained two small portraits of the airship herself: one in flight, and the other of her launching from Cobh, Ireland.
Each of the shorter walls held a single panel door, though the wall facing the deck that ran the circumference outside of the body of the massive airship contained three portholes which provided a modest view of the deck and its inhabitants. The wardroom was dominated by a long mahogany table, polished until it nearly glowed with an inner light. Around the table was an orderly assembly of chairs, pushed close save for the one occupied by Adonia Salgado. The Britannia’s first mate, Mr. Mason, stood nearby next to the thin cabinets while he engaged Miss Salgado in idle conversation.
Their thoughts were interrupted when Captain Hunter opened the door leading from the main walkway. Anthony nodded briefly in greeting.
“Did you locate them?” Adonia asked.
“Yes,” Hunter replied, “they were only one deck below. Moira assured me she would listen closely to what the engines told her. Mr. St. Claire will make sure Moira isn’t disturbed while she communes with the machinery.”
“Pardon?” Mr. Mason said with a raised eyebrow. “While she ‘communes with the machinery’? Captain, are you sure your woman is up to the task? Two murders and sabotage have occurred. Sharp eyes are needed, not a seance.”
Hunter turned towards the first mate, jaw clenched, his mouth drawn into a tight thin line as he visibly bristled. With some effort he reined in his temper.
“Moira Wycliffe is more than up to the challenge, Mr. Mason,” Captain Hunter replied in a brittle tone. “In my opinion, there is no one more skilled. She merely needs time to work. If there is something amiss to be found, rest assured Miss Wycliffe will positively identify it.”
“I see,” Mason replied curtly.
“However, that is not the true topic at hand,” Hunter said folding his arms over his chest. He glanced from Greg Mason to Adonia. “I was lead to believe there were six daggers, all former property of a set of Roman centurions. Now there seem to be twelve?”
Adonia sighed, giving Hunter and Mason an apologetic look. “There are still six. That much is the same. If you both give me a moment, I can explain.”
Anthony, his temper ebbing slowly out of him, shook his head slightly. “I should be surprised, but truly I’m not. If I may, my dear? The other six are an elaborate ruse.”
“Preposterous!” Mr. Mason exclaimed. “They were examined once before boarding, then again just before being placed under lock and key. Our expert …”
“Is a noted expert in field, yes,” she interrupted, her Portuguese accent flavoring her amused tone. “He is also very well paid for the task at hand. In this case, he is paid to make a convincing argument that the six aboard the Britannia are just what they appear to be. For you see, dear Anthony is correct. One set of six are real. The others are exquisite forgeries to distract the onlookers.”
“What?” Mr. Mason snapped in reply, the hint of a twitch forming beneath his right eye.
“Calm down, Mr. Mason,” Adonia said soothingly, her snake-like tendrils slowly twisting around her head hypnotically. “It was necessary to transport them safely to the Americas for study at the Smithsonian Institute.”
“Madam!” the first officer said in a chilly tone, “you cannot use a passenger airship, such as the Britannia, as some … stalking horse! It’s dishonorable! You’ve brought the death of two of my crew! You’ve placed the lives of the passengers in danger! Not to mention risk besmirching the honor of the ship and her crew with this,” the first officer frowned, casting about for an appropriate phrase, “plot you’ve hatched.”
“I am not a chicken who lays eggs,” Adonia replied tartly, leaning forward in her chair. “As for danger to the passengers, I was told your security could handle any trouble that dared arise on this journey. Perhaps I was mistaken in my interpretation of your ability in, how was it put? Oh yes: ‘guarding a simple set of old relics’?” Adonia countered. A pleasant, yet almost predatory, smile framed her lips.
Captain Hunter sighed. “Enough. This bickering solves nothing.” The captain frowned, staring at the long wardroom table, his thoughts turning over in his mind. After a moment, he glanced over at Adonia. “Just a moment ago, you mentioned the ruse would ‘distract the onlookers’. I know you quite well, Adonia. That wasn’t some phantom fear. Likewise, you would not waste the time to have forgeries made without an excellent reason. Who wants these daggers? What is actually so important about them, besides their historical significance?”
The Portuguese Charybdian woman sat back in her chair, her face a mask of consideration. After a second’s thought, she obviously had come to a decision. She folded her hands in her lap.
“You know me very well, Anthony,” she said with a slight smile, “I’m not certain to be worried or flattered. Yes, there have been attempts on the daggers before. Several times over the years, in fact. The daggers themselves are incredibly valuable to any number of collectors, however there is more to those than relics or money. As I understand the story, legend,” she hesitated a moment to spare a brief chuckle, “perhaps ‘unverified legend’ is better, but legend has it that seven daggers hold the clues to a ‘gift from the gods’. In this case, specifically Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge. The gift? Some records say it is the missing scrolls, gold and treasures from the Alexandria Library, others a source of limitless power.”
Greg Mason, enthralled by the story, looked puzzled. “Seven? There are only six daggers, and what exactly is this gift?”
Adonia sat forward, her eyes bright with her smile. “Ah! That is where it becomes interesting. The seven daggers all belonged to seven Roman centurions, brothers, who supposedly located this ‘gift’. Whatever this gift was, they never reported it to Rome, but instead felt it was a danger to Rome itself. So they hid it, concealing the clues to its location within the seven daggers, in case they eventually found a means to make this ‘gift’ safe for Rome to use.” She held up a hand momentarily, “However, the Roman Empire was not necessarily a safe place at that time. One of the daggers, the seventh, called the Praetorian Dagger, was lost when its owner was on a campaign in the wilds of Northwestern Europe.”
“Which explains why there are now only six,” Captain Hunter commented. “It likewise explains why the daggers hold such a fascination for thieves, especially if the treasure is at least close to what you’ve mentioned.”
“Rumored treasure,” Adonia corrected, “no runes or glyphs have ever been found on blade or sheath to support this. Nothing to indicate they are more than just of a matched set of ancient weaponry.”
“The rumor itself makes them more valuable than they would be otherwise,” Mason said thoughtfully.
Adonia nodded. “Yes, Mr. Mason,” she replied, “even though there has yet to be a proven shred of truth to it at all.”
“Greed has little use for truth in my opinion,” Captain Hunter said, placing his hands behind his back before he slowly began to pace the width of the narrow room. “This thief or thieves are willing to kill for this rumor. That much is evident.” He paused in his pacing. “Adonia, I understand the need for the duplicates. A bold plan, really. Unfortunately, Mr. Mason is correct, you did place the passengers and crew at great peril.”
A superior smile spread across the first officer’s face. “So you see …”
Captain Hunter quickly interrupted the man. “However, I suspect you were counting on the thieves to bypass the Britannia’s security and make off with the daggers. A bold move, which would only buy us time to deliver the real ones to the Americas.”
Mr. Mason’s face fell. “Deplorable,” he grumbled.
Hunter nodded, as if he agreed with the first officer. “The idea would be deplorable to some, yet it is also quite efficient. I would have tried much the same thing. I see why having the Griffin and the Britannia lashed together puts everything at risk.”
“Also, why I could never explain this fully,” Adonia interjected.
Mr. Mason crossed his arms with a sour look, Hunter ignored him and resumed pacing. “Indeed. The less that know, the better kept the secret.”
“Given all this,” the first officer said, “I would think this plan was already at risk before you arrived, Captain.”
Adonia sighed, then gave a glum look to the two men, “I had already begun to suspect this for myself.”
“Agreed,” Captain Hunter replied. “If after the knives, why murder two of the Britannia’s crew? Unless they had access to where the knives are kept?”
Mr. Mason shook his head. “They had no access to the knives in the slightest. Only the Captain, myself, and the purser know the location and the means to get at the knives. The only thing the engineer might know would have been the design of the special lock used for that safe.”
Hunter stopped in his tracks. “A ‘special lock’? Who else knew about this?”
Abruptly, the door to the wardroom flew open. A young man, barely older than seventeen and dressed in a rumpled midshipman’s uniform, gasped for air.
“Conner!” Mr. Mason barked, “compose yourself, boy!”
“Aye, Mr. Mason!” the young man said between breaths. “But there’s an emergency! Deck four, agin’ the secondary starboard steam exhaust!” Conner’s eyes cut quickly towards Captain Hunter and Adonia for a moment. “The bugger who did in the engineer is at it again! He jumped on them two from the Brass Griffin! The lady and the brown-skinned man with her! Not been there, but I heard there’s an awful fight below deck!”
Hunter exchanged a brief, alarmed glance with Adonia.
“Where is deck four from here, lad?” Hunter demanded.
Conner gestured behind him. “Out to the hatch, down the ladder thrice, ten paces, then down the ladder there. You’ll hear the shoutin’ by that time.”
Captain Hunter pushed past the midshipman with Adonia close behind.
The Britannia’s first officer grabbed the young man by the arm. “Tell the Officer of the Watch! Then grab some lads and meet us there! There’s no time to lose!”