by Ian Ironwood
Chapter Six: The Plummeting Duke and the Baldwin Bag
“Are you ready to depart then, Captain Becker?” Baron Amadahy asked Gideon on his penultimate day in service to the Kingdom of Oklahoma. They were meeting in the Foreign Minister’s opulent office, easily as posh as any in England, though some of the decorations might have raised an eyebrow in London. But his ship’s recent heroism had earned Gideon the privilege of meeting with the third most powerful man in the Prairie Realm in his private office. Tomorrow he would go aloft from the Tillassa Yard one last time, his service ending the moment he crossed the border into the province of Lafayette, in the Empire of Louisiana.
He had chosen that route to protect the Louisianan locomotive that would haul fifty cars through the Empire’s northern frontier, through the provincial capital of Petite Roche. From there the cars would be loaded aboard barges and floated the rest of the way south to the Lousianan capitol at the mouth of the Mississippi. The shipment was of especial import to Gideon, as fifteen of the fifty large steel canisters of compressed Helium belonged to him, not to mention sundry baggage of his crew that could better travel by ship to Europe than on the Victrix. That provided him a great interest in the locomotive arriving at Petite Roche intact – that is, safe from the various Negro bandits, renegade Reds, gangs of Louisianan outlaws and opportunistic Atlan soldiers who might consider attacking it.
Indeed, it was only the last of these that were of any particular concern – bandits, whether Red, White, or Black, had little to gain from rousting the train as the wealth involved, while profound, was hardly portable or easy to conceal. The Atlans, however, had placed a high bounty on any Helium captured by their soldiers or private mercenaries. There had been sporadic raids on the Helium trains for years, since the very first year the vital Tillassa-Petite Roche rail line had been completed, in 1869.
Four times had ambitious gunmen managed to halt the train, remove or kill the engineers, and off-load the massive canisters across the border using traction engines before either the Louisianan Imperial Army or the Oklahoman Kingdom could respond in force. Therefore, despite the added expense, it was now standard practice for an airship-of-war to accompany the train as it wound through the wilds. Usually an Oklahoman patrol ship would suffice, but since Gideon and his men were leaving any way, the Kingdom had requested this one last service so as to keep their new ships-of-the-line on duty defending the kingdom.
“Yes, your Excellency,” Gideon bowed, gracefully. “My crew is chosen, my quarters are stripped bare, and the Victrix is loaded so that I was amazed when my sister managed to get her aloft this morning. We will be prepared to depart at dawn, as scheduled.”
“Excellent, excellent. Captain Becker, it is my pleasure to inform you that His Majesty is very pleased with your service in the last year, and has authorized me to extend to you this final offer: a commission as Vice Flight Admiral in the Royal Air Service. I might add that a commission that senior has never been extended to a White man,” Amadahy added.
“While I am most gratified by His Majesty’s extremely generous offer,” Gideon replied carefully, “and though I have enjoyed my service in His Majesty’s military, my own ambitions lie outside of the Kingdom. Although I hope this in no way prejudices the great friendship between myself and His Majesty, as I hope to remain in the good graces of the Kingdom for some time to come.”
The old Indian smiled indulgently – more like a Frenchman than a Cherokee, Gideon decided – and chuckled. “I told Steven you’d say that,” he nodded. “And I don’t believe you have any fear of vexing the Crown by refusing the offer, especially since you are half-brother to his grand-niece. But I urged him to make it anyway, as did others in the cabinet. It was the least we could do, under the circumstances.”
“Well, please kindly inform His Majesty that my ambitions extend to making his grand-niece’s vision for a new kind of airship come true. Indeed, it is no secret that after we have secured our property in Petite Roche, we will be voyaging to Paris where we shall commence construction. In fact, my agent has already secured the use of a yard and shed, and the basic structures are being laid. Perhaps the next time we meet, you shall see what honors Tayanita’s design will bring to her realm.”
“Oh, I certainly hope so,” he agreed. “She has always been brilliant. Her Uncle Cheasequah has been trying to marry her off since she was a little girl, but her mother and I have always been able to stop his machinations. He’s a traditionalist of the worst sort: women are for tending babies, cocks, and cooking fires, and damn little else. I don’t care how important he is in the House of Delegates, that girl has no place bearing brats or languishing in a convent school. He even tried to stop her from leaving in quest of her true father, but she slipped away. She lives up to her name,” he mused. “Indeed, I’ve always had a fondness for her, as if she were my own daughter. “
“I can’t imagine Sissy in a convent,” Gideon laughed, rolling his eyes. “Yet I don’t wish to leave bad blood in our wake – is this uncle . . .Cheas . . .” he stumbled – almost a year in this land, and the words still tripped him up as badly as did Ancient Greek.
“Cheasequah,” the baron corrected. “Lord Robert Cheasequah. Or Delegate Cheasequah, I should say. I wouldn’t concern yourself, Becker. He gave up on Tayanita long ago, in favor of torturing his other relatives. I, on the other hand, know she’s possessed of both great vision and a powerful intellect, and I believe that it is best for her to pursue her fantastical ideas. Robert and I often are at loggerheads, however, and Tayanita was just one of our battles. I have yet to forgive him for teasing me about my name when we were lads in the service of Steven I,” he mused, recalling his youth with a gleam in his eye. “I knocked him flat that day, and he has yet to move beyond it.”
“What’s wrong with your name, if you don’t mind me asking, Excellency?”
“Eh? Oh, I suppose you wouldn’t know. ‘Amadahy’ is traditionally a girl’s name. It means ‘forest water’, or, more specifically, ‘forest spring’. Hardly a warrior’s moniker, which Cheasequah never tired of pointing out. Still, it was my mother’s dying wish that it be mine, and so I’ve kept it – and had to fight to keep it. One reason why Tayanita and I are close, I suppose. Her name is traditionally a boy’s name – but her grandmother wished it.”
“Well, you are both extraordinary individuals, regardless of the propriety of your names,” agreed Gideon. “And I can only hope the Kingdom will forgive me for borrowing a favored daughter for a time. But Sissy and I have great plans, plans that will shape the design of airships for a generation.”
“I would expect nothing less from either of you,” Amadahy said, opening a drawer in his impressive French desk. “In any case, here is a draft on the Treasury for the balance of your fee, here is your letter of commendation for service and recognition of your status as a member of the realm’s military, and this,” he chuckled, “is a personal note of thanks from King Steven.”
“This . . . looks perhaps too generous,” Gideon said as he studied the first document. “It was my understanding that our balance was only a few thousand pounds, yet this draft is for more than ten thousand!”
“It’s no mistake,” Amadahy said, in a much lower and conspiratorial voice. “It’s compensation for a favor the Kingdom would ask of one of its best officers.”
“A . . . favor?” Gideon asked, cautiously.
“Yes, a very quiet favor,” said Amadahy.
“And that would be . . . ?”
“On the morrow, before dawn, there will arrive at your yard a group of men I wish you to take aboard,” he continued quietly, “a group I would rather not have be seen embarking with you. This town is depressingly full of spies, and it would undermine our plan if they were discovered.”
“Plan?” Gideon asked, his interest piqued.
“Oh, just another little skirmish in this interminable war,” Amadahy dismissed with a wave of his hand. “We have intelligence that the Beanies are planning something, and we plan to counter it forcefully. Yet due to the current negotiations in New Orleans between our respective delegations, it would be unwise if we were seen to be bargaining in bad faith.”
“So you wish me to take these men to Petite Roche?” Gideon asked, confused.
“No, they shall not be disembarking there,” Amadahy said, shaking his head.
“All the way to New Orleans, then?” Gideon asked, surprised. “I had not yet decided whether to cross the sea in a southerly clime or voyage to the Golden Halo, but—”
“Either choice is fine, I assure you. They will not be disembarking at any point beyond, either.”
“Then I am to land elsewhere? I am confounded by this plan,” Gideon said, worriedly.
“No, Captain Becker. Indeed, I wish you to depart and conduct your voyage just as you would without my men, but . . . well, let us gaze at the map, shall we?” he asked, nodding to the office wall where a meticulous hand-painted parchment map displayed in miniature the features of the kingdom. Amadahy peered at the thing until he found the capital, then traced the main rail route to Petite Rouche. “This, then, is the river, which the rail line parallels quite nicely for most of its course. You shall be following the locomotive – circling it, actually – as it travels. All we ask is that you find your way along your route over . . . this section,” he said, drawing an imaginary circle around a spot a few miles off the river, proper, “where you will . . . let my men out.”
“You mean . . . a rough grounding?” Gideon asked, imagining his over-loaded Victrix trying to make an unassisted landing in the rough frontier between Louisiana and Altlan without benefit of ground crew, mooring tower, or any of the other comforts an airman desired to reduce the risk of catastrophe. Surely such a landing could be made, of course, but the danger . . .
“Not at all,” Amadahy chuckled. “Indeed, the Atlan pickets would spot your descent at once and dispatch troops to investigate.”
“So I’m to just throw your men out over the rails?” Gideon asked, sarcastically.
“In a manner of speaking . . . yes,” Amadahy agreed, serenely.
“I shall not be your executioner, sir,” Gideon said, darkly.
“Nor would I ask you to be, Captain. Suffice it to say that before dawn tomorrow, a number of the Crown’s soldiers will board the Victrix under the command of . . . Duke Goyahkla,” he said, with just a hint of drama.
Gideon stiffened. Of all the Oklahoman soldiers to have made a reputation in the constant border war with the Atlan Empire, General – now Duke – Goyahkla was by far the most respected.
The wiley old Indian general had been born in the deserts of the western Atlan territories, where his people had been brutally oppressed by an empire infamous for its brutality. As a result, his tribe had become warriors of reknown in their struggle against Atlan City. For while their lands were in close proximity to the lamas of the Hopi lands, they had eschewed the faith of the Buddha and cleved instead only to their own gods and spirits – very warlike spirits, as the Atlans had come to discover.
After fighting the Beanies for half of his life, Goyahkla had heard of the new Kingdom in the east from traveling monks, and learned that they were seeking warriors to overthrow the Atlan governor. While he had little knowledge of the Eastern tribes of the Chocktaw and the Cherokee, Goyahkla was eager to lay his sword at the feet of any king who swore the Atlans his enmity. He had taken service in King Steven I’s rag-tag bands of warriors and quickly distinguished himself in both cunning and ruthlessness in his war of separation. It was said the Atlan scalps he had taken as trophies could have carpeted the Royal Opera House, and Gideon knew serious men of war who would not dispute that fact.
Knighted on the battlefield and commissioned as Lieutenant in the Royal Army only two years after he arrived, Goyahkla took charge of a light cavalry unit and had led dozens of punishing raids deep into Atlan territory. Two years after his knighting, he had been enobled by Steven I and granted an estate and a promotion to Captain; three years after that he was a Baron and a Major, and five years after that, during the Atlan’s near-successful push into the gas fields that had almost cost King steven his crown, Goyahkla had rallied the stragglers left behind the disasterous Battle of Two Creeks, split his forces, and coordinated a surprise two-pronged counter-attack on the Atlan column in conjunction with a Louisianan airship bombardment, and broke the momentum of said column.
That battle had been fierce enough and important enough that Edward had remembered reading about it in the newspapers in England. Goyahkla was a living hero to the people of Oklahoma, a revered and respected military man in Louisiana and America, and the bitterest foe to the Atlan Empire that God had seen fit to torment them with.
If Goyahkla was involved in the mission, then, Gideon would trust the man’s reputation and battle plan. “Say no more,” he nodded. “I shall do as the General bids.”
“Thank you, Captain,” the Baron nodded. “This war with the Beanies is like conducting three games of chess simultaneously . . . in a room full of rattlesnakes. General Goyahkla is as one of our knights, then, jumping over the frontier and attacking from a clandestine location. There is method to this madness. But say no more to your men than you have to.”
“Understood, your Excellency. If there is nothing else—”
“Actually,” the man said, suddenly looking embarassed, “there might be. In my capacity as foreign minister, it behooves me to avoid entangling the Kingdom in any unecessary diplomatic disputes . . . and as of last night, one has arisen that you may well be able to assist me with.”
“How so?” Gideon asked, intrigued.
“Well, as I’m sure you are aware, the capitol is postively awash in foreign spies. We are well aware of this, of course, and our intelligence service depends on them as much as they depend upon us for their livlihood. Among these . . . agents are those representing the interests not only of various Empires and powers, but some who work for certain mercantile interests. One of these – a countryman of yours, actually – was caught en flagrente delecto with the wife of Duke Mushulatubbee, Minor.”
Gideon knew the name, though he had never met the man. Mushulatubbee was a financially powerful Red Indian, a Choktaw nobleman having titles and estates both in the Oklahoma Kingdom and in the Mississippi province of the Louisianan Empire, the Choktaw’s original homelands. Indeed, his family had been instrumental in the support of the first Kings, and had powerful influence in the Court of New Orleans as well. Not the smartest man to cuckold, Gideon observed silently.
“You mean His Excellency—”
“The good Duke returned from business in Guthrie on an earlier train than he had telegraphed to his wife,” the Baron explained. “When he had arrived at his townhome, he discovered this . . . gentleman in his lady wife quite up to the balls, and clearly not for the first time. The man in question serves some German merchant interests, though he was once an officer of the British Army – I believe he was the only survivor of Piper’s Fort in Afghanistan, under General Elphinstone, back in the 40s, or something equally as heroic and historic. But that won’t save him. Mushulatubbee is a powerful man, and proud. He chased the interloper away, but is now seeking him with vengeance on his mind. He’s quite an accomplished duelist, as well – he studied at the Imperial Academy in New Orleans, and excelled in fencing, as well as the more traditional Indian arts of combat.”
“I thought such affairs were commonplace amongst the Oklahoman aristocracy,” Gideon pointed out, delicately.
“Perhaps,” the Baron conceded. “But when a Choktaw nobleman is humiliated like that, for his wife’s lover was a White man, after all, vengeance often clouds his judgement – and to give you some idea of how proud a man Mushulatubbee is, his name means ‘determined to kill’ in Choktaw.”
“How oddly propitious,” Gideon observed.
“Not for the Englishman, I’m afraid. He appeared at my doorstep at midnight last night, begging for sanctuary. While I should, by all rights, summon the Guard and have him appear before the Court of Chiefs for judgement – which would in all liklihood include a duel to the death between the principals, in consideration of the Duke’s high position in court – I chose to avoid an international incident. I have him sequestered at the moment, but the Duke’s men scour the city and search every train to Petite Roche. So . . . I would consider it a personal favor, Captain, if you would spirit this mad Englishman far away from our Kingdom. He pretends to desire to return to Europe, and since that is, indeed, your final destination, I considered you to be his best chance at doing so with his scalp intact.”
“I am not quite sure that I want to gain the enmity of such a powerful figure as Duke Mushulatubbee—” Gideon began, preparing to decline the dubious honor.
“The Foreign Office will be happy to pay his fare to Europe in advance, in gold. It would be embarassing, you see, if the old fool turned up dead on Oklahoman soil. Once you are out over the ocean, I care not what happens to him. Throw him over the side or sell him to the Moriscans, if they’ll take him. But neither Oklahoma nor Louisiana is safe for him anymore.”
“Very well,” Gideon said, affecting a heavy sigh. “Because you ask it, Baron, and because you and Tayanita are so close, I will consent to remove this offensive man from the realm.” In all liklihood, he would have done it anyway, but every conversation with Baron Amadahy was a negotiation, he had discovered long before. “But not an ounce more gold, or I’ll not make it to Louisiana. Just pay my soliciter, Sir James LaFlore, and he will wire me the money. It is he who shall be in charge of running what few affairs I have left here. And he knows how to contact me, should you have further need of my services.”
“LaFlore? I know him well, good man. Another Choctaw, related to Duke Mushulatubbee, too, I believe, so we’ll make the reason for payment . . . discreet. Now, if that is all, Captain Becker, then I have an appointment on the Royal Links at noon to play nine with the Ambassador of Louisiana and the Consul of the Cherokee Nation. And let me repeat, just one last time, what a pleasure it has been doing business with a White man I can trust. You’ve been most . . . civilized about things, Becker, and don’t think that has escaped our notice.”
* * *
Just before dawn the next morning, a troop of twenty five extremely well-muscled young native men in the green woolen coats of the Oklahoman Royal Army arrived en masse, bearing no small amount of weaponry. Each carried a brace of pistols, Gideon observed, as well as a tomahawk, a cavalry sword, a carbine, knives strapped to various appendages, and long belts of ammunition strung over their shoulders. At their head rode an impressive old Indian, his face worn like a leather apron left overlong in the sun, but his eyes seeming like portals to some ancient wisdom.
“General Goyahkla,” Gideon said, bowing deeply as he took the head of the old warrior’s horse. “An honor to meet you again, Your Grace.”
“The reception at New Year’s,” the General recalled, sharply, after studying Gideon’s face in the twilight gloom for no more than an instant. “You wore a blue coat and a silly hat. You danced with Little Beaver. But my old friend Wolf Rider says you fight well.” It sounded like a major concession from his lips, but Gideon took it in stride. He was used to the arrogant attitudes of the natives, and this man, above all others, had good reason for his arrogance.
“The General has an excellent memory,” Gideon agreed. “And it is a pure honor to bear you aloft. I only wish old Wolf Rider was accompanying me – I’ll have to make do with a fellow he recommended for the post, Captain Ned Wauhillau, late of your service.”
“I knew his father, Lord Ned Christie,” the old Indian grunted. “Good warrior. He stood alone against fifty Atlans with only his rifle, pistol and sword for almost a year at Wauhillau, in the old days, until he was relieved. If his son is half as good a warrior, you will be well served.”
“I certainly hope so. If your men will ascend to the gondola, we’ve made temporary quarters available to them. As far as your baggage . . .” he said, nodding towards a large pile of rucksacks that had been unloaded concurrently with the arrival of the soldiers.
“My men will each take one and carry it themselves,” the General said, dismounting his horse like he was a teenager and handing it off to a subordinate. “They are . . . secret weapons.”
“No doubt,” Gideon nodded, suddenly wondering what that amount of explosives could do to his ship if they were ignited. “Then please use the utmost care in their stowage.”
“As you wish,” the old soldier grunted, then ordered his men to begin the long climb up to the gondola.
“I believe there was to be one other passenger,” Gideon said, biting his lip as he peered into the gloom past the soldiers. “If he does not move with more expediency, however, I fear he will be scalped by noon.”
“F_________,” the General said, rolling his eyes with disgust. He added a word in a language that Gideon didn’t know, but sounded vile, and spat on the ground.
“Was that the name? An older gentleman, an Englishman—”
“I heard of Mushulatubbee’s shame,” Goyahkla spat again, this time in honor of his countrymen. “They are both old fools. F________ for dishonoring his host, Mushulatubbee for not keeping his woman in line.”
“Well, if the old bugger doesn’t arrive, and soon, he can face the consequences with Mushulatubbee,” Gideon pronounced. “Oh, this must be him,” he added, as he heard the clatter of wooden rickshaw wheels and the panting of the youth that pulled it. Soon the imposing figure of his passenger was standing proudly before him, a tall Englishman wearing a well-tailored suit of dark blue.
Gideon was not impressed. His passenger’s mustache was long and luxurious, but white with age – clearly the man had to be almost seventy. Gideon discovered by observation that he seemed to possess the same officiousness he despised in his father. Even more annoying he affected an air of superiority that clearly he had yet to earn in the Prarie Kingdom.
“Ready to board, Captain!” he said in a booming voice, throwing a perfect and perfectly inappropriate British military salute.
“Yes, well, up to the gondola and see the steward, Mr.—”
“You may call me Mr. Jones, for the duration of the voyage,” the old man said, glancing around at the many natives in the yard suspiciously. “Indeed, I would prefer that you remember that I am a simple representative of Bauer & Schmit, in the German Empire, and forget that I am English at all, if you’d be so kind.”
“Certainly . . . Mr. Jones. As I was saying, if you would be so good as to check in with my steward– he’s the Negro in the billed cap – about your assigned quarters, he will have a porter load your baggage. We will lift as soon as you are aboard.”
“Might I ask, Captain, whereto we are bound?”
“Petite Roche, to begin with. After that, perhaps New Orleans, perhaps up the Mississippi to the Golden Halo, or out across the Atlantic towards Africa. I have yet to decide. Ultimately, however, we go to Paris.”
“Depend on Fortune, and you will always come out ahead,” the old man said, sagely. “Up we go then!” The smell of gin on the old passenger was daunting as he passed by, two large portmanteaus borne by his native rickshaw driver. As the sky lightened in the East, Gideon took one last look around the yard that had been his home for most of the last year, and then ascended himself.
“Ready to depart, Cap’n?” Black Tom asked, putting his ubiquitous notebook under his left arm. He seemed no worse for wear having dealt with “Mr. Jones”, but then Tom always seemed to keep cool under pressure.
Tom was a civilian, a clerk Gideon had rescued from debtor’s prison in New Orleans six months previously when he had made an escort run and was forced by weather to linger in the decadent capitol a few days. The Negro’s family had held lands on the northern frontier of Louisiana, but had lost their holdings during the second war between the Republic and the Empire as they tried yet again to establish a border in the Mississippi valley. Since the Americans had paid a bounty on any Negro bearing arms in the war, and took a dim view of even unarmed Negro peasants, he and his family had departed St. Louis for a more civilized life in the south, and Tom had found a home in service of the Louisianan great houses throughout most of his youth.
Though he lacked formal education, Tom spoke and wrote in fluent French, English, Spanish, Dutch, German, Moriscan, and a smattering of Indian tongues, and had been well-trained for service amongst the nobles of New Orleans. But a love of gambling and a streak of poor fortune had landed him in near-slavery. He had jumped at the opportunity to sign on with the Victrix as porter and ship’s accountant, and after three months Gideon had promoted him to steward.
Now he ran the administrative affairs of the crew with an attention to detail that often astonished Gideon. He had been well-worth the small sum he’d paid to repair the debt and have the man released into his service. His real name was Thomas Million John Turpin, but the English and the Oklahomans alike aboard the Victrix had taken to calling him Black Tom, and he had many admirers in both parties. Even Tayanita’s Germans were fond of him – he was as massive as any Saxon brute, and the way he played on the tiny pianette in the gondola’s tiny salon was almost magical. Gideon had come to depend upon the Louisianan for the smooth operation of his ship, and that trust had yet to be betrayed.
“All are aboard,” Gideon agreed. “Sound the ascension horn and the departure bell, Tom, I’ll have the pilot take us alfot momentarily.” The Negro nodded curtly and calmly went about his duties as Gideon found his way into the control room. The horn and bell sounded, the ship gave a gentle lurch as the mooring lines were loosed, and the engines began humming as the blades of the propellers that sent the ship through the air found their full steam.
Watching dawn break over Oklahoma from such a serene height was spectacular, even if he had to hold that position in a small lazy circle about the town until the locomotive below was finally ready. Then he ordered George to begin the lazy circles over the train that would provide cover against banditry. His only real duty discharged, he repaired to the observation lounge and had Tom bring him breakfast.
It was nearly noon by the time the train and airship were approaching the designated spot the Foreign Minister had indicated. Gideon, curious about the Oklahomans’ mysterious weaponry, made a point of joining Duke Goyahkla and his men at the main hatch. Each of them seemed prepared for a boarding mission, with thick leather helmets and brass goggles, and each bore one of the mysterious packs, but Gideon had gleaned no more comprehension about their purpose or utility. The men seemed unconcerned with sudden movements or jostling, as one would expect if they were carrying explosives. It was a testament to their professionalism, and the leadership of their General, that they prepared for battle in relative silence.
The same could not be said for “Mr. Jones”, who seemed as curious as Gideon about the sortie. He stood at the periphery and told long, rambling stories about his own military service, including several improbable posts and exaggerated missions, but even his boorishness was quieted by the stoic nature of the Indians.
Duke Goyahkla inspected each man’s equipment and rigging, spoke a few words of encouragement, and chuckled good-naturedly with his soldiers as they approached their point of departure.
“You Grace,” Gideon finally managed, when the General had completed his inspection, “I was told that we would not be descending for a rough grounding, or even low enough to utilize the boarding gondola – I cannot but help be curious as to your intended means of departure.”
“I suppose we’re safely out of earshot of spies,” the Duke conceded, though he glanced at Mr. Jones pointedly. “And it will not matter much longer, after today. We will leave your ship by the most expedient route possible, Captain: we will jump.”
“Have Red Indians gone and sprouted angel wings, then?”
“No, Captain. The French have. Well, a young American in Louisiana, that is. These are known as ‘Baldwin Bags’,” the General said, indicating the packs he and his men wore. “Within is a meticulously folded contraption of silk and string, which will deploy as soon as we leap. When it naturally expands due to the force of the wind, it will slow our descent enough to allow us a gentle landing . . . in a region where we are not supposed to be.”
“Parachutes!” Gideon cried, his eyes blazing. “I’ve seen the like, though nothing this small and compact. Do they actually work, then?”
“This will be my third foray,” the wizened General nodded. “We tested them in the Northern fields, out over the Ocean of Grass. Only two of my men were injured.”
“And you will be able to land your entire platoon without alerting your foe . . . brilliant!” Gideon said, smiling broadly at the idea. He was an airman, himself, but he’d spent time as an infantry officer before he’d acquired his ship; he fully appreciated the tactical advantage of such a deployment.
“That is the theory,” the Duke said, grimly. “We will plummet safely and rendezvous in force, before we attack. There are three observation posts along yonder ridge that the Beanies use to spy on our movements – such as the departure of the train, below. It is my mission to strike them, leaving none alive. The sortie is designed to strike fear into the soldiers of the Beanie army and make them more cautious in regards to our frontier. That, and those shiny new airships we paid so dearly for, should settle this war . . . for a while, I believe.”
“So you just . . . jump out, then?”
“Yes,” the General confirmed, pulling his brass goggles over his wise old eyes. “As their leader, I shall make the first departure.” He made a final check of his straps and his weaponry, before sliding the wicker door open to reveal the sprawling land below.
“Then good hunting, Your Excellency!” Gideon said, enthusiastically. “No doubt by nightfall the name of Duke Goyakhlah shall once again strike terror in the craven Beanie heart!”
“Actually,” the old indian said, with a sly smirk, “the Beanies do not oft use my proper name. I picked up a nomme d’guerre in my youth, when I battled the despicable Spanish mercenaries the Atlans sent to conquer my people.”
“Really?” Gideon asked, surprised. This was a tale of the war he’d not heard. And he was particularly intrigued by war-names, now that he and his fellows were known as the Sky Panthers. “What do they call you, then? Something awful, I imagine.”
“The Spanish mercenaries were drunken brutes, hired from South America by the Atlans for their dirty work in the desert when we proved too strong for their own people. Catholics, of course,” he explained, as he approached the door. “So when they were at need, they called upon St. Jerome. My band and I ensured that they had ample cause to do so, I assure you. So when we made our forays against them in the dark of night, all their comrades could hear were their cries to the saint, as we slew them. In time, as I became more and more associated with those raids, they began using the term to refer to me, specifically, until it became my war-name amongst them.”
“So . . . what do they call you?” Gideon asked, expectantly, as the General prepared to jump.
“Geronimo!” the Duke cried, as he leapt out of the airship and into the fickle winds of fate.
Gideon held his breath as he watched the man plummet, and was ready to begin a prayer for his soul when he saw the parachute emit from the Baldwin Bag, catch the air, and slow the old warrior’s descent to a less-deadly velocity. The next soldier leapt immediately afterwards, grinning foolishly at Gideon as he leapt, and he, too, repeated the General’s name. Indeed, each of the braves did so as they leapt, almost as an invocation of the living legend they followed into battle so avidly.
“I wonder if that will catch on?” Gideon asked himself, as he closed the hatch and dogged it securely.
“It’s ingenious,” the faux Mr. Jones said, nodding, his face reflecting a kind of awe at the display. “This could very well change warfare. Imagine: whole armies born aloft and inserted precisely where they are needed, behind enemy lines. It will cast the science of war into a proper tizzy!”
“Perhaps,” Gideon shrugged. “But I endeavor to change the science of war altogether, myself. Someday, Mr. Jones, the world will see the launch of the greatest airship in history, and the most terrible, under my command.”
“You have ambitions, then, Captain?” Jones chuckled as he followed Gideon up the narrow stairway to the salon. “I thought you were in exile?”
“Which is why I travel to Paris, not London,” Gideon agreed, grimly. “Until Pater decides to live up to his responsibilities in regards to Tayanita, I shall not serve him, nor the British Empire, save only as a mercenary – if then.”
“You would make war on your mother country, then?” Jones frowned.
“Not war – but not love, either. I might die a begger in exile, but I will have my honor. My father, my brother and their cronies have lost any idea of what that might be, but if I alone of the Beckers yet know the meaning of the word, I shall redeem the blemish my father casts upon it by his rejection of his daughter.”
“You live a complicated life, Captain Becker,” Jones said, shaking his head. “Mark my words: a military career is a grand one, as long as one can avoid battle and live to bed the wench at the end of the day.”
“This from the last survivor of Piper’s Fort? I expected more valor,” Gideon chided, mindful he did so of an elder – which pleased his rebellious pride.
“So you heard about that, eh?” Jones said, shaking his head. “Candidly, it’s all lies. Well, true enough in fact, but the story is untruthful about the event. It usually is, in my experience. They found me with an empty pistol in my hand, surrounded by my dead comrades, the Union Jack clutched in my fingers. They said I was trying to protect the flag from the Afghan invaders, but the truth was I was looking for the chief of the Afghans to surrender to. I was near insensible, at the time, and if I fired a shot in defense of the Empire the memory escapes me.”
“So your entire military and diplomatic career . . .”
“Is built on a lie? Perhaps,” the old man shrugged. “But an instructive lie. Keep that in mind as you bravely challenge the world, Captain. Often it is the perception, not the truth, that lingers on far after memory itself has faded. What people believe of you is often far more important than what you have actually done. But you must weigh that against your own sense of honor, and act accordingly. Now, on to cheerier things: who was that delightful morsel of dusky womanhood I saw lurking around when I came aboard? She may have been dressed as a boy, but there is no disguising those curves.”
It was Gideon’s turn to chuckle. “That is my half-sister, Tayanita. She’s also my Engineer, and while I could add she is under my protection, I think you’ll find that forcing yourself on her unwilling would produce an abrupt and inglorious end to your career, regardless of how it began. She is very independent-minded – which I encourage. And an adept shot,” he added.
“Remarkable,” Mr. Jones sighed, nodding. “I suppose there will be whores enough in Petite Roche – and certainly in New Orleans.”
Gideon left the man to breakfast in the salon. He made his way back to the humming Engine Room, where Sissy and a brace of her men were keeping the steam engine that powered the propellors and the pumps whirring along. The room was moist and overly warm, as usual, and the smell of burning alcohol and stale steam haunted the air. Sissy herself was tapping the altimeter she’d insisted on installing down here and frowning.
“If I didn’t know better,” she said, absently, “I’d say we just dropped a dozen rockets! Did something fall?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Gideon grinned. He explained the method of egress his secret guests had used, and made Tayanita jealous that she hadn’t been there to witness the event.
“But you must procure me some o’ those Baldwin Bags when we get to Na’orleans,” she insisted. “We could do so much with those!”
“It is already on my agenda,” he assured her. “So, do we have everything we need, then, to begin construction of the Argo?”
“What? Of course not!” she scoffed. “Not by half. Oh, we got the gas, now, and the keel is alread laid if that firm we hired knows their business. But there are still thousands o’ things we’ll need before she takes air, much less goes to battle!”
“Such as?” Gideon asked, his heart sinking. He thought they had acquired enough of a fortune to build their dream ship twice over.
“Such as about forty thousand gallons o’ latex,” Tayanita began listing, “about ninety miles o’ hemp rope, four tonnes o’ steel cable – that ain’t cheap – two brand new custom engines from Germany, and, and . . .”
“I understand,” Gideon sighed. “I suppose we’ll be hiring our swords out for a while, yet.”
“Oh, I think we can take a respite from battle . . . for a while. But Gid, even if we paid pure gold, the Argo will take years to build. At least two. And there are hundreds o’ miscellaneous parts that we’ll have to special order, or fabricate. That costs, too. More than we have. But we have enough to start, and if Fortune smiles, we’ll have the rest afore long,” she assured.
“So, to New Orleans, then to Paris,” he nodded.
“Uh, Gid? Any way we could do a little . . . fishin’ along the way?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, aware that the girl was prone to metaphor far more than an English girl would be.
“I mean, that there are plenty o’ Spanish ships comin’ back from their colonies in the South, and latex is one of their major spoils. The Moriscan pirates take latex ships all the time. If we could contrive to capture a few o’ these, maybe, we could cut down the price significantly. Time, too.”
“Air piracy?” Gideon asked, a little startled..
“Well, if you wanna go and get all technical,” the Indian maid scowled. “Yes, piracy it would be. I know that might go against your idea of honor—”
“Actually, I find the idea rather appealing,” he chuckled. “I was dreading a prolonged stay in Paris. Too easy to be lured into indolence by its many charms. A little casual piracy might be just the thing I need to keep me sharp, until the Argo is complete.”
“That’s ideal!” she smiled, relieved. “Way I figure, we hole up in Paris while I supervise construction, then maybe go out every couple o’ months to go . . . shopping,” she said, wryly. “I mean, as long as we stay on the right side of the Frogs, and not hit anything too important, we should be able to linger there until it’s complete without having the air navy of every Empire under Heaven chasing us.”
“Still, it’s unlikely that Emperor Napolean will appreciate a brazen outlaw using his fair city as a hideout. Paris isn’t an ideal base for piracy,” Gideon pointed out, “although the amenities are, indeed, delightful.”
“True, but it’s where we got to build the Argo. So if you want to dock the Victrix elsewhere, I suggest you start searching for a spot. But within telegraph reach of Paris.”
“That’s most of Europe, Sissy,” Gideon observed, gently. “Very well, I shall seek some out-of-the-way place, then, for our pirate base. But—
“Shhhh!” Taynita said, suddenly, her eyes widening. Gideon almost interrupted, but thought better of it. If Sissy heard something amiss with the engines, he’d leave her to it.
“What is it?” he whispered, afer a long pause. Tayanita waved at him impatiently, then started wandering into the labyrinth of tight corridors that ran the length of the gas envelope. Each of the massive inflating cells had to be accessed at need, so the catwalks wound around a great deal, providing ample territory for mischeif to strike. Gideon followed her, suddenly concerned – had some Atlan spy actually stowed away up here, ready to sabotage his vessel? Grimly, he drew his pistol.
As they approached he began to hear what had attracted Sissy’s attention: a rythmic moaning and grunting that was all too familiar. The noise of the engines, while now receded, was still omnipresent enough to hide their footfalls, so the siblings were able to approach without alerting anyone.
Taynita paused, abruptly, and Gideon stood behind her, peering over her shoulder, at what she stared at. There in a tiny nook between two swollen cells lay two familiar figures: William Bonney and Marta, the captive Beanie noblewoman. The lady in question was on her hands and knees, her bronze arse high in the air, as she welcomed the pounding of Billy’s turgid tool in her cunny with apparent relish. For his part, Bonney was riding her cunt like he was breaking a horse, wildly and with abandon. If his approach was crude, it apparently met with Marta’s approval, as she had a loud and boistrous climax moments after the siblings discovered them. Neither one was aware of their presence, however, and though Gideon waited for Sissy to intervene, she didn’t.
They contented themselves with watching the rowdy coupling, and Gideon had to admit to himself that Billy, for all of his wild ways, seemed to know his business when it came to fucking. The course mercenary gunman slapped at Marta’s broad buttocks with enthusiasm, making her squeal and wimper as he rode her cunt, until he, himself finally arrived with a bellowing scream near to that Gideon had heard the day he’d lept off of the side of an airship.
“That,” Tayanita said icily, clapping slowly in the aftermath, “was impressive, Mr. Bonney.”
There was an unpleasant edge to her voice that made Gideon realize that he might be escorting Mr. Bonney through the hatch without the benefit of one of those Baldwin Bags. “So did you smuggle this whore aboard? Or did she make it here on her own?”
“Captain,” Bonney said, wide-eyed at his discovery and clearly unwilling to confront Tayanita, “I have to report the presence of a stowaway!”
“Really?” Gideon said, trying hard to keep a smirk from his lips as he returned his pistol to its holster. “And how did you apprehend this stowaway, Mr. Bonney?”
“Wellsir,” the mercenary said, as he collapsed on the floor next to his lover, “I was doin’ my rounds, patrollin’, if you like, when I heard a noise. When I went to investigate said noise, I found me an Atlan spy. So of course I wrestled her to the ground and was in the process of securing her when you arrived in such a timely manner.”
“Full marks for boldness, Mr. Bonney,” Gideon had to admit. “But that doesn’t quite clear your name. Come, did you bring Marta along?”
“No, Captain,” the Atlan woman said, sadly. “He is correct: I did stow away. I felt compelled to: my father is reluctant to part with such a high ransom for his . . . homely daughter. He was engaging in bargaining with the Oklahomans more suited to purchasing a mare at market, not redeeming a beloved child. So I escaped the confines of the Atlan Consulate and stole aboard last night.”
“So you have cost me a ransom—” Gideon began.
“And me a man,” added Tayanita, levelly, her arms crossed judgementally under her breasts.
“And imperilled our entire journey. You do know the law about stowaways, do you not, Marta?”
“Indeed,” she said, nodding seriously. “You may do with me what you will. But I can only beg of you, Captain, to take me into your service. I’ve always been passionate about airships, and yours is so fine compared to my homeland’s rude attempts. I will bear any burden, Captain, and swear any oath if you would but consent to allow me to accompany you and learn what I can. I shall clean privys, cook, sew, be the whore of your men. But I have no wish to be the bride of some ancient, pushing out his brats while I see such magnificence as your Victrix probing the skies from the perspective of my miserable life.”
Gideon looked at Tayanita, who glanced back at the Atlan girl. He would have to leave this up to her, he knew: he might be captain aboard the Victrix, but he was equal partners with his sister in the venture, and when it came to keeping her happy that alone was Gideon’s top priority. There was a long silence that led the captain to believe his half-savage sister might consign both of them to the skies.
“If you truly are that in love with flight,” she began, cautiously, “then report to the Engine Room at noon. Have Evan teach you the basics of the room, what everything is called. You will be the absolute lowest of my crew, I warn you, and I will not spare you in the slightest either because of your sex or your class. Noble or common, man or woman, the Engine room is my domain and you will do what I want precisely how I want it done.” Gideon stifled a sigh of relief – he had no desire to execute either of them, though he had been willing to do so.
“As for you, young lady,” he said, addressing Marta sternly, “your life belongs to me, now, even moreso than before. When we land at Petite Roche, I will wire your Consulate and let them know I have taken you into custody myself because I was unhappy with negotiations. But when and if your father should see reason and ransom you back, then you will depart for home by the most expedient available transport. Until then, you are Lady Tayanita’s to dispose of as she will. Do you understand me?”
Marta nodded, trembling. “I shall do as you bid, Captain.”
“As for you, Bonney,” he continued, sternly, “seeing as how you have taken up her cause, you will share your quarters with her for the trip. Somehow I don’t think you’ll be sharing them with anyone else,” he added, wryly, looking at the furious expression on Tayanita’s face. “Until we get to New Orleans, at least, and then we can decide exactly what to do then.”
“That’s fair, Cap’n,” he agreed, nodding sagely, as if he just made a good bargain trading horses. “Truth is, I’m kinda sweet on ol’ Marta, here. Sorry, ‘Nita, not that you ain’t a peach, but . . . well, always carried a torch for Atlan women, an’ Marta here is just grand!”
“I’m sure you’ll be very happy together,” the Engineer said, grimly, and stomped off.
“I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that,” Gideon said, apologetically, as he followed her. “Not if she has anything to say about it. And do pull up your trousers, Bonney.”