Captain Hunter greeted his brother with a firm handshake. “It’s good to see you Thomas, though it does come as a bit of a surprise.”
Thomas smirked. “A surprise?” he remarked, “Which part of ‘surprise’ would that be? The fact I’m aboard a damaged airship bound for the Americas, or that I’m in the belly of said beast, where the destruction actually happened?”
“The former, actually,” Anthony replied wryly.
Thomas raised his eyebrows a moment, then nodded, “fair point. Though, given what I’ve seen here, I believe I could be of some help to the problem at hand.” The doctor knelt next to Moira and squinted at an ointment-covered burn near her ear. “Good, your burn is just beginning to cooperate pleasantly with the salve. The redness should be alleviated in a few hours.”
Hunter exchanged a suspicious glance with Adonia before replying to his brother. “What problem are you talking about?”
“The problem involving the ruffians that did all of this. Specifically, I could be some help in deducing their motives as to why they did this, not to mention how. It strikes me that those men are not your garden variety thugs or pirates,” the doctor replied, giving his brother a cautious look, “a fact I’m sure you and yours have realized all too well.”
“I will admit, I have never seen pirates vanish in smoke before,” Noel replied. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. “That is, unless they have somehow set themselves on fire,” he added.
“They just got a bit lucky,” Moira growled under her breath, her pride still stung at being outfoxed a moment before.
Thomas stood, giving Moira’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Indeed, if my assumptions are correct, a great deal of luck is involved. However, I suspect it’s been coupled with a high degree of planning and preparation. For instance, to appear and vanish so easily requires the proper tools and a familiarity with the stage on which they plan to appear.”
Moira’s mouth was set in a fine, disgruntled line. She remained silent and moody. Adonia considered Dr. Hunter’s words a moment.
“If I understand what you are saying, Doctor,” the Charybdian said thoughtfully, her hair-tendrils slithering almost coyly around over her shoulders, “you make it sound as if they are illusionists?” she asked, her voice layered with a melodic purr.
“Indeed, my dear,” Thomas replied with a slow gesture at the walls around them. “If you look past the destruction, yet focus on the theatrics of it – in technique, they just might be.”
Anthony gave his brother a sour look. “You sound rather impressed with them, Thomas,” the captain commented.
Dr. Hunter shook a finger in Anthony’s direction. “Make no mistake, Gabriel. I do question their motives. Although, I cannot help but be impressed at the lengths they’re willing to go to for whatever their goals might be.” Thomas Hunter shrugged, “Their passion, though ill-directed, is still impressive.”
Before anyone else could speak, a young sailor, out of breath, approached their vicinity in a clamor. He rushed between the small groups of sailors working along the hallway. He would stop at one group, speak rapidly, then move on to another once the first acknowledged they understood. In no time he arrived where Anthony and Thomas Hunter stood with Moira, Noel and Adonia.
“Begging’ ya pardon, Sirrahs,” he inclined his head towards Adonia and Moira, “and ladies, too. I was told to pass along that the corridor’s to be cleared for a bit. Word from Journeyman Clavis come along that the supports here most likely aren’t safe since the bombin’.”
Captain Hunter frowned at the sailor. “Journeyman Clavis? Who is that?”
The sailor blinked as if confused at the question. “Apprentice engineer, Sirrah. A’course that was when we had a steam and clockwork engineer for him to be apprenticed to. Still, sorry to be a bother, the Journeyman was right insistent. Need to clear all here out of this hallway, then only let in a small number at a time to handle repairs.” The young man glanced uncertainly at first Moira with her collection of small bruises and burns, then at Adonia who only occasionally dabbed the wet cloth at her recovering eyes. “If the ladies be up for being moved. Again, I’m right sorry ‘bout this.”
Thomas nodded to his brother. “They’ve nothing debilitating, Gabriel.”
Anthony clapped a hand to the young man’s shoulder. “Tell your journeyman we’ll not lark about. We’ll be heading out straight away.”
The young sailor seemed relieved. “Thankee, Sirrah. I don’t want Mr. Mason sendin’ me to scrub the bilge for the boilers.” Quickly, he raced off to warn the next group of uninformed sailors.
Once the young messenger had continued down the hallway, Moira collected what was left of her tools in a now-burnt canvas bag. When she was done, Thomas gestured down the hallway in front of him.
“Ladies, if you would?” the doctor asked with a smile.
Adonia nodded politely while Moira managed a brief upturn to the corner of her mouth – a small crack in her current gloom. Dr. Hunter fell in step with the two women, escorting them out of the damaged area.
“The air will do us good,” Thomas offered, “besides, better to talk there than here, eh?”
Behind them, Captain Hunter shook his head at his brother’s display of charm, then proceeded to follow after them. Next to him, Noel jumped when his boot accidentally tapped a nearly hidden object on the floor of the hallway. It bounced across the deck with a light rattle of glass and metal. Noel knelt down and picked it up.
It was a small round glass vial shaped like a small pear and bound with thin brass bands running around the circumference of its widest part. At the narrow end, a small cork was firmly stoppered in the thin neck of the vial. Inside, a milky liquid rolled around, leaving a faint skim on the inside of the glass. The entire container was no larger than a single inch in diameter, and only three inches tall. Noel turned the small flask over carefully, peering at its viscous contents.
Captain Hunter noticed his pilot’s new fascination and stopped following his brother and the two ladies. “Mr. St. Claire, what have you found?”
“I am not sure, Mon Capitaine,” Noel replied, still watching the strange container with its mysterious fluid curiously. “It was on the ground, near where one of the men that attacked us had fallen. Perhaps it rolled free of his coat, non?”
Anthony leaned over and squinted in the gloom at the small vial. “It isn’t as if I saw clearly what they were throwing about, but it does look similar. Hang onto it. Perhaps Thorias or my brother can make sense of the contents.”
“Aye, Capitaine,” the pilot replied, then dropped the vial into a pouch at his belt.
Quickly, the two men hurried along the hallway to catch up to the others.
The five reunited above on the main deck. Dr. Hunter lead the group through the evacuated crew to a small alcove not far from the wardroom where Anthony and Adonia had been only a short time ago.
“This isn’t the most quaint location, or the most private,” Thomas Hunter said while the group gathered in the alcove, “however it will do in a pinch. Now where were we?”
“You mentioned our mysterious friends having something in common with a stage magician,” Captain Hunter supplied.
“Yes, illusionists, to be precise,” Thomas replied. “I was fortunate enough to have an illusionist as a patient at one time. He had been gravely injured in the course of his work, which allowed me some insight into the devices and techniques he used. Naturally he never explained them, but of a few, I was able to deduce their use and function on my own.”
“What kind of devices?” Moira asked, her curiosity piqued.
Dr. Hunter shrugged, then clasped his hands behind his back. “Oh all manner of small, easily concealed items. My former patient had many odd custom inventions. One was a spring-loaded device he wore under his coat, into which he could house any manner of small, long items to only have them ‘appear’ suddenly when he had the attention of the audience focused elsewhere. Another was a chain of small silk scarves he kept hidden in the lining of his clothes that he could ‘pull’ from the veritable air.”
Noel fished the strange brass-banded vial from his belt pouch. “Monsieur, would vials of liquid be something else used?” He held out the container for the group to more easily see.
“What is that?” Adonia blinked at the sunlight overhead, filtered through the smoke and steam that encircled the two ships. The Charybdian’s eyes were still marginally sensitive from the assault before. “Where did you get it?”
“As for ‘what’ I do not know any more than it is a vial with a strange fluid inside,” Noel commented. “However for the ‘where’, it was back in the hallway where the bomb had been – right where Moira and myself had left one of our attackers.”
“It very well could have fallen from the man’s coat,” Anthony added thoughtfully.
Thomas Hunter took the vial carefully. He turned it over in his hands, watching the fluid. “More the better for us. Yes, this is precisely the type of thing an illusionist might use. Either they brought this aboard, or have a place on ship they are able to mix this.”
“An illusionist is often quite good with locks, yes?” Adonia asked.
“Oh, most certainly,” Thomas replied, “if they wish to remain a viable performer on stage these days.”
The Charybdian woman blinked against the sunlight, then leveled a hard look at Captain Hunter. “We need to inspect the daggers,” she told him flatly, yet quietly.
“Which? The set of daggers aboard the Griffin? Or here aboard the Britannia? Or both?” Anthony asked.
“Both,” she replied firmly. Her hair tendrils twitched irritably to match her stern mood. “Bear in mind, this is not to say that I don’t trust the security aboard the Britannia …” she began.
“However, the Britannia has been assaulted twice with some measure of success, and what with the Brass Griffin now tethered to her, it puts everything at risk,” Anthony finished for her.
“Yes,” she said with a nod. “Especially since these thieves are willing to murder to reach their goals.”
“What daggers?” Thomas asked with a confused frown.
“The very items I believe they are after,” Adonia replied curtly. When Dr. Hunter looked none too satisfied with her reply, she sighed, glanced around, then fixed her hard look at the man. “They are a set of Roman daggers,” she said in a low, stern voice, “fantastically valuable for a number of reasons, none of which I prefer to go over out here in the open. However, someone has already tried to make off with them before the voyage. I’m worried these mysterious men in black are the would-be thieves who want these Roman relics – unique, priceless Roman relics.”
Thomas Hunter looked impressed. “I see,” he replied.
Captain Hunter cleared his throat before he spoke. “Given the situation, it would be a good precaution to at least make sure your cargo is all where it should be,” Anthony concluded. He gestured at the vial Dr. Hunter held. “Thomas, if you would do the honors?”
“As I’m merely a passenger – admittedly a nosy one – aboard the Britannia, I’ll need a laboratory of some kind,” the doctor said, still observing the fluid inside the vial. “Some place to work with little distraction and more secrecy.”
“Thorias is aboard the Griffin,” Hunter explained, “I’m sure he would enjoy the visit, and relish a chance to do something more than sit idly by and trade insults with Mr. Whitehorse.”
“Capital!” Thomas replied with a smile. “I’ll find him square away. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Thorias, in any case.”
“With yer permission, Cap’n,” Moira said, finding her voice. “I’d like to get back at the Britannia’s engines. I can find my way around that hallway they want everyone out of.”
Captain Hunter looked skeptical. “Moira, are you certain? You likely should rest.”
Moira rubbed soot from around one of her eyes, taking care not to brush against the angry red burn on her cheek. “I’ve been tossed about worse than this, Cap’n. Ya know that. It’s better them engines are looked at now, rather than later when them buggers with the black coats come back to cause more trouble.”
Anthony glanced at Thomas. The doctor tore his attention away from the vial to look at Moira with a practiced, clinical eye. Satisfied, he gave the captain a nod. “Nothing broken that I could find before, mostly bruises and cuts. Those burn marks worry me still, but she promises they’re months old and she’s showing little sign they hamper her in an any way. I’d rather she rest, but I’ve no medical reason to demand it.”
Captain Hunter also looked at his lady engineer. Fierce and determined, the dull smoke of anger and burnt pride lingered in her eyes like a ghost. At the last, Anthony relented with a wry look. “Fine, fine. However, watch yourself,” the captain admonished.
Moira’s face broke into a small, almost relieved, smile. “Ya won’t regret a bit o’ this, Cap’n,” she said before making her way to the nearest ladder down, her singed bag of tools slung haphazardly over her shoulder.
“Noel?” Captain Hunter said.
“Aye, Mon Capitaine?” the pilot replied.
“Go with her,” Anthony explained. “Try your best to keep her out of trouble. We need to know what is going on in that engine room, now more than ever.”
Noel grinned. “Not a hair on her head will be burnt, unless she does it to herself,” he replied earnestly, then raced off after Moira.
Captain Hunter turned to face Adonia, then offered her his arm. “Well then, if you’re able, shall we inspect some Roman relics?”
Adonia gently placed her arm on his with a warm smile, accented by her small fangs. “Able or not, I would be glad to. Perhaps, if we are genuinely fortunate, we’ll have a chance to catch the thieves in the act! I could do with the satisfaction of seeing them locked in irons in whatever ship has room for them. Now that would truly brighten my day!”