Senhorita Adonia Salgado turned and smiled Cheshire-like at the Duchess Julia Von Ferrin. The Duchess countered with a similar, if chilly, expression of her own. From the orchestral pit across the room, the strains of a piano composition struck a minor key. Passengers milling about the dining hall near the quartet quickly decided they were needed elsewhere.
“Why yes, Anthony, I do remember,” the Senhorita said pleasantly. The intensely stern look in her eyes shone like hard yellow gemstones beneath the light of the electric arc chandeliers. “Duquesa, I certainly have been dying to meet you.”
“Oh? Well, I most certainly can oblige you then, Senhorita,” Duchess Von Ferrin replied smoothly.
Senhorita Salgado’s smiled turned a shade more predatory, not unlike a snake about to feed. Only in this case, dinner was another snake. “Ah, Duquesa Ferrin, I bow to your presumed extensive experience.”
Archibald RiBeld thoughtfully stroked his chestnut colored mustache and goatee with a hand. His hard, brown eyes flicked between the two women, alight with a spark of amusement. He leaned forward slightly and carefully interjected himself in between the barbed, verbal artillery fire.
“Ah, ladies, while this is most entertaining, I must beg your indulgence. Unfortunately, there is a private matter I really must discuss with the good Captain Hunter. Would you two mind? If only a moment?” the mercenary captain asked with a charming smile.
Julia Von Ferrin’s smile spread a touch wider. “Why, of course I do not mind! Surely the Senhorita does not either. I’m certain she and I will find all sorts of things to batter about between the two of us.”
“Oh, sim, I am certain we will.” Adonia then flashed a tense smile at Anthony. “Do not be too long, Querido, there might be a change in tempo. It would be such a shame if you missed it.”
“Of course. I promise I won’t tarry,” Anthony replied with a slight, formal bow at the waist. He doubted Adonia meant the music when she mentioned ‘tempo’. The captain was also quite certain he watched battle lines being drawn before his very eyes, even as the two women walked a short distance away.
RiBeld likewise watched the two women leave before he clasped his hands behind his back. “You’re looking well, Captain. Not any the worse for wear?” the mercenary captain said, looking down his long, thin nose at Hunter as if examining a mildly entertaining servant.
Captain Hunter slipped the fraudulent journal into a coat pocket, then clasped his own hands in front of him. He turned and faced his own personal conflict. “None that I’ve found. Quite hale and whole, thank you, Sirrah.”
RiBeld’s face broke away from a casual smile into a genuinely dark smirk. “I’d heard a nasty little rumor that a last outing of yours had nothing to do with you being shot, for a change. I was astounded! You were ‘gassed’, I believe? Truly awful for you. It must have been quite the stench.”
Hunter’s reply was sharp. He was in no mood to banter about with a man who had tried to kill him. “Just what do you want?”
“My property, of course,” the mercenary leader explained casually, narrowing his eyes like a sleepy cat. “Which you have, and I know you have. You could be a rather good chap and deliver it to me. It would save much bloodshed, irritation, and trouble on my part. I expect you to be difficult about this, given you are ‘you’ after all. Be that as it may, I thought I’d be magnanimous and give you the chance to be a gentleman, just this once. You know, demonstrate a semblance of breeding that I’ve heard your family might have.”
Captain Hunter’s jaw muscles clenched, his mouth set in a hard line. He glanced off towards Adonia and Julia. They were still talking, and no weapons had been drawn. That surprised him. He was certain Adonia had at least two knives hidden on her dress somewhere; he had given her one as a gift. The chamber musicians quickened the tempo of their piece. Hunter nodded very slightly in appreciation of the music; it helped him think.
He looked back at RiBeld, smiling politely. “No,” he replied.
“No?” the mercenary leader looked only briefly surprised.
“Oh, forgive me,” Hunter added, “respectfully, no.”
“How do you mean, ‘no’?” RiBeld replied, stunned and almost insulted that anyone – even Anthony Hunter – would refuse his overly generous offer.
“Please, forgive me, Captain Archie,” Captain Hunter responded with a tense, bemused smile, “I had not realized you were hard of hearing. If you would, allow me to try again.” He leaned forward just an inch, staring into RiBeld’s eyes with a challenging look. “No. Absolutely, bloody hell, no. I doubt a man of your questionable station in life has the intelligence to understand the details around and within said ‘property’ you claim is yours. However, I do believe a man of your dubious, pampered position does have the intelligence to understand: no, it remains with me.”
Captain Archibald RiBeld’s face went rigid. His eyes burned with rage. “You and your cheap, frivolous heroics!” he snarled in a low voice. “Who do you think you’re saving today? Hm? Hunter, if you think that having these,” he made a brief, short, dismissive gesture at the room around them, “fat wastrels called ‘passengers’ all about us will keep me from my property, you are ill informed!”
“Captain,” Hunter replied with a smile.
“What?” RiBeld blinked, momentarily confused.
“There should have been a ‘Captain’ along with that ‘Hunter’, Sirrah.” Captain Hunter corrected the mercenary leader. “You see, I use the title ‘Captain’ to grant you the highest amount of respect I can – which, incidentally, would fill the belly of a dung beetle – as you have, at one time, been the captain of an airship.” Hunter’s smile quirked at the corner of his lips, then threatened to break out into a full smirk again. “An airship which, if I recall, I burned out from under you. Twice. With enthusiasm. Mine? She still flies proudly.” He frowned slightly, giving Archibald RiBeld a mockingly thoughtful look. “Old chap, you really ought to see to a different profession. Have you consider horticulture?”
“You insufferable … arrogant …” RiBeld stammered, cheeks flushed with anger. “I will have what’s mine!”
Captain Hunter momentarily raised a hand. “Ah, temper, temper, ‘Captain’ RiBeld. We are in a social setting. Best observe the proprieties. Wouldn’t want to give rise to ‘bad form’. Besides, that’s what your Brotherhood is for, yes? Wouldn’t want to get one’s hand soiled among the lower classes, eh?”
It was the mercenary captain’s turn to frown. It gave him the look of a confused bulldog. “What are you blathering on about? Yes, I manage a company of mercenaries. Nothing ill-gotten about that. Although, they are not called a ‘Brotherhood’. That makes it sound like some addled cult huddling in the back of a storeroom, whispering ridiculous opium-laden portents at one another.” He shook his head angrily. “You will not dissuade me with another of your childish, rubbish attempts at distraction! ‘Brotherhood’ indeed.” He thrust a finger into Captain Hunter’s face. “I will have my property, Hunter, take mark on that! I will not be diverted! Passengers and Britannia be damned!” he hissed furiously.
Hunter said nothing. He raised his eyebrows in response, feigning a look of social surprise that neither man truly believed.
With a great effort, Archibald RiBeld struggled to regain his composure or some measure of it, then resumed a more civil stance. “In any case, I am on holiday. I would prefer to enjoy said holiday. I will deal with this matter between the two of us at my leisure … which will be later!” Jaw clenched angrily, RiBeld turned smartly on his heel. He sternly walked away, with hands clasped tightly behind his back.
Captain Hunter watched the man thoughtfully. He considered the mercenary leader a general irritation, not unlike a persistent boil on the backside of life that was in desperate need of lancing. Despite the usual level of depravity to which Anthony had become accustomed from RiBeld, a ‘genteel subterfuge’ had never been among the man’s repertoire. The Archibald RiBeld he knew was direct, blunt, and at times bloodthirsty. He was not above using others to do his dirty work, even if that occasionally involved small amounts of subterfuge with a decoy. So far he had never resorted to the extensive theatrics that had been happening of late.
“I’m not as polished as Adonia in getting the general measure and sense of a person,” Anthony mused in a low voice to himself. “However, I do manage. I don’t think you actually know about this ‘Brotherhood’, ‘Captain’ Archie old boy. You and that damned Duchess might very well be just an unhappy coincidence in this whole affair. Hopefully, Adonia will have discovered more from her social sparring partner than I have from mine.”
He glanced over where his resourceful Senhorita Salgado and the Duchess Von Ferrin were fully engaged in either a conversation or a verbal duel to the death. It was difficult to tell; there was no bloodshed yet.
Captain Hunter took a deep breath, then let it out slowly to steady his nerves. While he watched the two ladies, he got the impression he observed two cobras, seeking just the right moment to strike at the other. Hunter was surprised there was not a lightning storm over their heads.
“Well,” he said lightly, brushing wrinkles from his coat. “It’s time to sail in to see if Adonia needs any artillery support, or assistance in hiding the body. Damn the lightning cannon, and full steam ahead!”