The dining hall aboard the Britannia was a wide, spacious affair located along the starboard side of the enormous passenger airship. Long wooden tables, surrounded by nimble-looking brass trimmed chairs, were arrayed evenly along one quarter of the room itself. The rest of the immense room was dominated by a small orchestral pit and a wide dance floor. Overhead, a quartet of wide, polished chandeliers hung from a light cherry wood ceiling. They glowed with the bluish-white light of very expensive miniature arc-lanterns in each of their stems.
Anthony Hunter stood just inside the doorway to the banquet hall. He tugged at his collar, then adjusted his dark blue frock coat – one that usually only saw the inside of his sea chest – for the hundredth time. He was dressed appropriately for the occasion, from polished boots to passingly pressed trousers, shirt and frock. From any observer’s perspective, Hunter appeared at first glance to belong there … just so long as one did not look too closely. For Hunter it brought back uncomfortable memories of another place and time in the Royal Navy.
Captain Hunter glanced around at the passengers as they filed through the main doors. Dressed in their finery, the newcomers drifted around the room. Conversations floated in the air, hovering like steam around the participants. Anthony sighed; he felt a bit like rotting flotsam adrift at sea given how the occasional passerby looked down their nose at him.
Adonia Salgado, her arm entwining with the captain’s own left arm, gave him a brief glance, then gently shook her head. Her hair-tendrils, which were pulled back and secured precariously with a black bow that complimented her black blouse and sapphire blue gown, jostled slightly from the motion, then curled with amusement. She patted his forearm. “Stop fidgeting,” she said.
“My deepest apologies, Adonia, I’m being a proper ass,” he replied softly. His resolve lasted only a few moments. “Bloody hell, I feel like I’m being baked,” he complained in a low voice. “It feels all too warm in here.”
“You are not being baked,” Adonia replied, bemused. “You dislike formal affairs, therefore you are simply not used to wearing that particular coat. Now stop squirming like a worm on a hook and pay attention, Querido. If you want this Brotherhood to take you seriously – if they are even watching – you know as well I do, you need to be more at ease.”
Anthony gave the Charybdian woman at his arm a sour look. She returned it with one of amusement. His face melted into a smile. “Oh, very well,” he said, “I concede defeat.” The captain gripped the fraudulent journal in his right hand, tapping it idly against his thigh while he returned to watching the new arrivals. “We should at least be sociable.”
She raised an eyebrow at her companion, then tugged his arm gently. “This way, Querido, we need to be seen so the journal is seen. Also, I know I asked you to leave your pistol aboard your ship, so please try not to punch anyone? It would be in bad form, even if they do deserve it.”
Anthony’s only reply was a grunt of acceptance. Knowing that was the best she would get in reply, Adonia led the pair across the room towards the closest knot of passengers. Among them, a portly, balding man in a tweed suit smiled at their approach. His ruddy cheeks made his smile all the more jolly.
“You must be the renowned Captain Hunter I’ve been hearing about!” the man said, extending a hand. “Capital meeting you, Sir, at this time of our little mechanical mishap! Sir Reginald Wainwright of the Southampton Wainwrights, at your service.”
Captain Hunter shifted the journal to the hand Senhorita Salgado held, then accepted the energetic handshake. “Good meeting you, Sirrah,” the captain replied. The moment he said the words, he immediately regretted it. He had forgotten the class of company he was in.
Reginald looked aghast, “What? ‘Sirrah’? How rude! Explain yourself, sir!”
Hunter frowned. “Explain what? What are you blabbering on about? I was merely …”
Senhorita Salgado sighed, then set her mouth in a brief, firm line. She quickly came to the captain’s rescue.
“Sir Wainwright, if you please, senhor, if I may explain?” she asked, her Portuguese accent giving a soothing undercurrent to her words. Adonia smiled pleasantly, her hair tendrils writhing with a mild tension, which was not quite in concert with the jovial nature she portrayed. “My good captain meant nothing by the comment. He has had little chance of late to properly relax these past several months, what with helping your vessel, dispatching brigands along the coast. He has been a rather busy man.”
Sir Reginald blinked at her comment, then straightened his back slightly. It only made him seem more pompous.
“Of course, my dear! Brigands, you say!” Sir Reginald beamed. “Brilliant! I myself am a retired Brigadier. I’ve dealt with a few pirates in my time. I know just the thing, Captain! Come! Dinner isn’t for a good while, we’ll swap stories! I and several others travelling with me would be absolutely enthralled, Sir! I’ll go let them know you’ll be joining us.”
While Sir Wainwright walked away, Adonia turned to Anthony and whispered, “Behave!”
“I am quite composed,” he whispered back irritably. “I didn’t hit him.”
She patted his arm. “For which I am grateful. Now, try harder, meu guerreiro. Think ‘genteel’.”
Anthony’s only reply was a withering sigh. He never had found his sea legs in formal engagements. He was not his father.
“Sir Wainwright, a moment, Senhor?” Adonia said, hurrying to catch up to the portly man. “Captain Hunter will be along in a moment, he needs time to compose where to begin. The tale is so very exciting,” she said with a bright smile.
Behind them, Anthony rubbed his eyes wearily. He just knew it was going to be a long night. Before he could follow, he felt an uncomfortable presence behind him.
“Ah Capitano, I see you have the journal,” an Italian voice said in a silky smooth, low baritone from behind. “I trust you are not about to commit any deviltry?”
Hunter started to turn but a hand gripped his elbow like a vice from behind. “Ah, no, Capitano, stay as you are,” the mysterious Italian man said firmly. “I am merely to reinforce the needs of the Brotherhood. It is clever you brought the journal to such a public place. Make no mistake, we are watching. We trust you will deposit it where we asked after this wonderful event, sì?”
“It will be there,” Hunter replied in a low growl. “I will personally see to it.”
From a few feet away, Senhorita Salgado looked past the shoulder of Sir Wainwright. Her eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed. Anthony’s eyes caught hers, he nodded just enough for her to notice.
Look for his face, Adonia, Hunter silently urged.
“Wonderful, Capitano, wonderful,” the Italian man said cheerfully. “Now, I will leave you to the attentions of your lovely companion. She is quite a gem. I would treasure her, eh? Though, I would advise against either of you following me.” Captain Hunter heard the man chuckle darkly. “I can see she is already curious. How unfortunate she cannot see me fully as you are in the way. Still, she is such a lovely woman.”
“Throw knives at me all you want,” Hunter growled. “Harming her? I’ll not tolerate it!”
The mystery man chuckled again. “Then remember, Capitano, no more games. A box in the main boiler room. Tonight would be most ideal. Buonasera.”
Suddenly, the grip on Captain Hunter’s arm was gone. The captain spun around, searching for any men walking away, crew or passenger. Unfortunately, that included ten different choices moving in ten different directions. However, he saw none of the Britannia’s crew, only passengers.
Adonia was immediately at his side, her hair-tendrils twitching in anxiety. “Anthony, perchance was that gentleman a member of the group we are looking for?”
“Yes,” Anthony replied curtly. “The Brotherhood is indeed here. At least we know one or more are among the passengers. He had an Italian accent. Did you see his face?”
“No, Sir Reginald was in the way and your new friend knew just where to stand,” she said irritably.
Anthony let a deep breath out slowly with a sigh. “At least we have their attention. That’s something.” He gave her a small smile, as much to reassure her as himself. “Since we’re here and the Brotherhood now expects the journal after this event, let’s make the most of it. I believe you said we should ‘mingle’?”
She entwined her arm in his. “Sim, Querido. I did. This way we can listen for your new friend.”
The pair turned to join Sir Reginald, then stopped. Adonia’s eyes went wide, although Anthony’s narrowed while his chest went tight. Across the floor, a man dressed similarly to Hunter in tailored formal clothes, only much more expensive and polished, smiled at Captain Hunter. The smile was pleasant, yet cold – nearly icy. Next to him drifted a dark-haired woman with pale, flawless skin, her dark eyes offset by a blood red gown. Black hair spilled along her shoulders, framing her almost sculpted face. The well-dressed man and his lady companion leisurely crossed the open space until they stood only two paces from Captain Hunter and Senhorita Adonia.
“Captain Hunter,” Archibald RiBeld said casually, drawing out each word as if tasting the bitterness of every syllable.
“Captain RiBeld,” Anthony said with a curt nod.
Captain RiBeld beamed, giving him the brief appearance of a well-fed reptile. “What an amazing surprise. I never took you for a ‘pleasure cruise’ man. Coming up in the world, good for you. You’ve lovely company this evening, I see.” The aristocrat turned mercenary captain then had a look of brief surprise on his face. “Ah, but where are my manners? Captain, as I understand it, you should recall the Duchess Von Ferrin?”
The Duchess Von Ferrin wrapped her arm around RiBeld’s, not unlike a snake. Her dark eyes quickly appraised Adonia, then dismissed her with a look as though she found her lacking. Von Ferrin turned her attentions to Captain Hunter with a slow, alluring smile.
“Captain,” she said silkily. “It has been such a long time.”
“Duchess,” Anthony replied with a brittle voice.
Adonia’s hand tensed dramatically on Anthony’s arm, her hair-tendrils nearly twitched themselves loose of the velvet bow holding them in place. “Anthony, who is this … person? I don’t think we’ve met.” An undercurrent of searing hot temper sizzled beneath the question.
Captain Hunter’s look shot hot daggers at Captain RiBeld for a brief moment. Hunter felt boxed in. He detested feeling trapped. Normally, such circumstances happened in less gentile venues; ones that allowed him the comfort of carrying a sidearm. Unlike now. He forced a smile. Instead of appearing at ease, it merely made him look like he had licked the side of the greased gear of a bilge pump.
“Adonia, I believe Captain RiBeld needs no introduction,” Hunter replied as calmly as he could, “at least none that I can properly give in such a setting. However, allow me to introduce the Duchess Julia Maria Von Ferrin. Widow of the late Baron August Von Ferrin. Duchess? Captain RiBeld? This is Senhorita Adonia Maria Ricalde Salgado, a dear and close friend.”
Anthony then waved a hand briefly towards the Duchess while he smiled at Adonia. “You remember the Duchess, my dear? She’s the one who tried to poison me.”