August 1, 1888
5:30 a.m. Wednesday
What if the skies never cleared and his quarry slipped past, swathed in cloud like a bride beneath her veil?
Or what if the enemy burst forth like a vengeful ghost, spewing a fiery retribution of lead and flame? Indeed, an airship with that much cargo would have guns aplenty on board.
There were a thousand what-ifs the captain of the Red Jack could not avoid, but that was the price Nick paid for this new life on the knife-edge of risk. But as an orphan abandoned to the circus—perhaps a Gypsy by his dark features, or perhaps something even less welcome in the world—his existence had been one gamble after another. Plundering a ship twice the size of his own craft was just one more.
Nick had called his magic earlier and raised a vision of where his quarry—the Leaping Hind—would pass, but something had gone amiss. By now the Hind should have sailed into view, engines groaning beneath the weight of all that wealth. She would be coming in off the coast, flying low and with holds crammed with clockwork, gears, and costly parts from the German states—a queen’s ransom in shining brass.
Nick shut his eyes and listened, giving up on sight. The engines of his ship were silent as it drifted with the wind. The creak of rigging was a comforting chorus, as if the Red Jack muttered to itself as it waited. Condensation dripped from the lines. He could hear the footsteps of his men moving around the ship—Digby at the helm, Beadle giving orders to the bosun and the boy, Striker cursing at some piece of equipment. Through the fresh, clear air, Nick caught the scent of gunpowder and grease.
“Athena,” Nick muttered under his breath. “Do you sense anything?”
There are birds, the air deva replied from her place of honor at the prow. Devas did not have a voice exactly, or language, though that was how Nick perceived it. The ash rooks.
“Anything else?” The rooks were always near, looking for something dead to eat. They were as much pirates as the men.
Captain Niccolo is impatient, Athena chided. For shame. A successful thief bides his time.
The elemental spirit—trapped in a half-melted metal cube—seemed female, although she possessed no physical form of her own. Before the cube had been stripped of all its golden decorations, it had been known to scholars as Athena’s Casket—an ancient Greek navigation device. Nick had started calling the deva Athena, and the name had stuck. She was the soul of the airship, its intelligence and vital force, and she made the Red Jack unique. No other ship, much less pirate ship, had a deva on its crew, and only Nick could speak to her.
Not that those conversations always went smoothly.
“I’m not impatient,” he growled. “I’m concerned.”
You are impatient. Your thoughts buffet me like a gale. There is no need.
“I have buyers waiting for what the Hind carries.”
All that metal men prize so highly. Dull stuff. But then she was a creature of air.
“Metal makes machines. Machines make power.”
And that power—heat, light, pumps to drive clean water into streets and villages—was a necessity of life. The steam barons ran the utility companies as well as the railways, dockyards, and most factories that produced weapons or mechanical parts. They were even branching into the defense industry and the telegraph. And where the barons took an interest, competition was quite literally crushed. No company dared to challenge their monopoly.
To make matters worse, conspicuous consumption of heat and light had become a hallmark of status among the gentry, and that drove up prices and left the poor to shiver in the dark. All this guaranteed an underground market for parts to build unauthorized machines—generators, windmills, batteries charged by wind, and whatever equipment a man needed for his trade. And that’s where the pirates sailed in and made their fortunes.
And what did Nick plan to do with all the profit? He wasn’t sure anymore. Every man had his dream, but he’d had to let his go. Or rather, his had walked away with a toss of her long, dark curls. Perhaps he was saving up to buy forgetfulness, for surely there must be a sorcerer who could carve Evelina Cooper out of his heart.
He felt a twinge of exasperation from the deva, equivalent to a human woman rolling her eyes. You must heed your birds, Niccolo. They have found the ship you seek.
Nick opened his eyes, looking out at the wet expanse that wrapped the Red Jack, soaking men and equipment in a clinging mist. If the other ship was invisible, so were they.
Nick’s ship was a perfect pirate vessel, small and sleek as a hawk. She had a rigid keel for mounting steam-powered thrusters and a long, thin tail that ended in a propeller. The gondola, wide and shallow, had been shaped to hug the long, thin oval of gray silk, the prow rising into a graceful raptor with outstretched wings. The ship was fancifully carved and painted in shades of white and blue. Its only splash of color was the scarlet flags around the rigging that gave the Red Jack its name. Perhaps she was far from the newest in airship design, but she was elegant, and the crew had slaved to make her shine.
“Oy,” came the soft exclamation from a few yards away. Striker, his second in command, leaned against the rail, pointing over the side. He wore a long coat covered in pieces of metal—each scrap of brass and steel representing wealth in a land where such goods were hard to get.
Nick joined him, following the line of his pointing finger. It angled down and to the ship’s starboard, where dark shapes moved among the clouds. The ash rooks hung in the air like scraps of ragged black velvet, their feathers so dark they seemed more an absence than a concrete form.
They turned, drifting down and to the right in a slow arc. “They’re leading us to the Hind,” Nick said in reply to Striker’s questioning glance.
Athena followed the flock, earning a curse from the helmsman when his careful steering was utterly ignored. Nick and Striker watched the roiling cloudscape, the mountains and pillars of cottony mist a strange and eerie wilderness.
Then Nick’s pulse began to speed, and a grin split his face. There, a little way ahead, was a shadow in the mist. The rooks swooped near it in perfect, silent formation until a rifle cracked, the sound muffled by the atmosphere. They scattered in a burst of black wings, darting safely away.
And then the Hind tore through the mist and came into view. Her balloon was sky blue striped with gold, the gondola slung below a heavier craft built for hauling cargo. The prow bore the figurehead of a leaping deer leafed with gold. A rich ship, then, flying the cobalt colors of the steam baron known as the Blue King. That was his treasure she carried.
“Got her,” Nick growled. His muscles tensed, as if his body was already leaping through the sky to take his prize. They watched as the ship passed between cloud banks, as elusive as a will-o’-the-wisp.
“That’s an aether ship,” Striker said, his dark face rumpled with concentration. “We can play with things that go boom.”
Nick understood. Like the Jack, their quarry used aether distillate to keep it aloft. It would have to, with a cargo load like that. Aether systems were finicky but didn’t explode as easily as the more inexpensive hydrogen balloons. That didn’t mean they couldn’t be sunk or burned, but they were less likely to take every other ship in the sky along with them.
“Tell Beadle to ready the attack. We’ll get close and give them a shot across the bow.”
Striker flashed his teeth in a savage smile, and smacked a fist into his palm before striding off to find the first mate.
“Go,” Nick said to Athena, and the single word began a dance they’d done a hundred times before.
At your command, my captain, said Athena. The hawk stoops to pluck this pigeon from the air.
“You’re gloating,” Nick said, unable to stifle a laugh of exhilaration.
All the best pirates have a proper sense of theater. Surely you’ve heard of Captain Roberts?
“As if I could avoid it.” Nick braced himself as the ship banked, sweeping down in silence. The motion was powered by the deva alone, relying utterly on her command of wind and air. The clouds parted below them once more, and he pulled out his spyglass and counted gun ports, estimating just how much damage the Hind could do. Then he scanned the deck for lookouts. Their glasses were trained everywhere but at the Jack—a gray-on-gray apparition still mostly hidden in the clouds.
There were many ways to catch a ship—flying false colors, pretending to be in distress, or even masquerading as one of the floating pleasure gardens where sailors took their ease. Nick preferred the honest approach—steel and shot first, blood if necessary, and fire if nothing else prevailed.
There was a gun affixed to the Red Jack’s deck—a piece of cold black iron mounted on a swivel. Striker had devised much fancier weaponry, but Nick held that back, keeping the element of surprise for when it was most needed. “Mr. Royce,” Nick ordered. “Please extend our felicitations.”
They waited, biding their time until Athena brought the ship closer. The clouds thinned at the lower altitude, but still a scarf of mist hid the enemy ship for a moment, then slithered slowly away. Beadle swept his arm downward in a silent command.
The gun belched and the ball of lead flew from a plume of stink and smoke. The gunner’s trajectory played true, sending their greetings across the nose of the Hind. A cheer went up from the Red Jack’s crew, celebrating Royce’s skill.
The next move depended on the Hind’s captain. He could strike his colors and surrender, or he could retaliate. Nick watched through the spyglass, one foot planted against the side as the deck tilted with the motion of Athena’s dive.
And then the Hind turned to put its side squarely to Nick’s ship, and the gun ports opened, showing the muzzles of half a dozen cannons. They would be small, light guns designed for use on airships—even aether distillate could only do so much to compensate for weight—but they could still blast a ship out of the sky.
“They’re not in a mood to chat,” Striker said, switching on the engines that drove the propellers. The accelerating churn of gears and pistons seemed deafening for an instant, but they no longer needed silence, and the deva could take advantage of the extra power.
“Mr. Beadle.” Nick slid the spyglass shut, part of him glad of the looming fight. “Show them what we’ve got.”
“Hands to gun deck!” roared Beadle. But the order was needless—the crew was already in motion, scrambling below.
The Hind’s guns fired, but Athena bounded upward, skipping over the volley of cannon balls as lightly as a child hopping over a puddle. Beadle, Striker, and Nick—staggering a little with the sudden motion—threw open a locker and grabbed weapons. Then they braced themselves against the rail, ready to shoot. Striker held a monstrous weapon— a blunderbuss three times as large as any Nick had ever seen—filled with all manner of metal scrap, ideal for discouraging a mob of attackers.
Nick heard the shouts and rumbles as the Red Jack’s crew readied the air cannons below. His stomach churned with a combination of excitement and terror, raising a slick of sweat under the linen of his shirt. His hands tightened on his rifle, and then he gave a nod as Athena dropped in the sky, bringing the Hind into view once more. Beadle rapped on the deck—three solid blows with the butt of his rifle, to give the signal to the gunners below. Circling overhead, the ash rooks gave a raucous cry, eager for their meal.
The Red Jack opened fire, air cannons spewing, but it wasn’t balls of lead they shot. Tightly sewn sacks exploded in midair, and a rain of twisted metal clattered to the deck of the Leaping Hind, flipping and skittering as soon as each piece hit the sanded wooden surface. They ran like beetles in a crazy zigzag over the deck, faster than any insect. These were Striker’s invention, and the answer to how a crew of eight could overpower a cargo vessel twice the Jack’s size. Thousands of the clockwork devices scampered over the deck, driven by a magnetic hunger to find anything made of iron—guns, propellers, boilers, engines, and above all, the aether distillate pumping device.
As the clockwork hailed down, half the cargo ship’s crew had no idea what to do. The other half dove for the scampering devices, voices loud with panic. A few of the things were smashed by boot heels, but most found their destination, clamped on, and unsealed the glass vials of corrosive acid inside their clockwork bellies. The devices died by their own poison, melting in minutes, but so did whatever they fastened onto. The engines of the Hind failed first, with a gasp, whistle, and then a messy explosion as the metal housing of the boiler gave way. The chuffing propellers whirled once, twice, and then stopped.
Nick was breathing hard, his pulse racing. The sudden silence of the enemy ship was eerie, as solemn a thing as the hush of a sick room. Then the Red Jack drifted closer, approaching near enough to inspect the damage, but not so close that the two enormous balloons would touch. Nick stayed perfectly still, waiting until the light in the aether pump winked out. A gust of cold wind struck his face and he could smell the stink of the acid-eaten metal, taste it on the back of his tongue. The Hind would gradually descend to earth, steered only by emergency sails and whatever airmanship skills the crew possessed. It was a slow enough affair that there was no need for loss of life—unless they fought back.
Time ticked past, maybe five seconds, maybe a minute, but it seemed an eternity of suspense. Nick clenched his jaw, hoping the other captain would take the easy road and surrender.
But the Hind slowly wheeled, using the little propulsion it had left to turn its guns on the Red Jack once more. “Don’t do it,” Nick muttered under his breath as Athena danced out of harm’s way. Surely the other captain could tell what was in store?
Apparently not, because the cannons roared in that same instant. Three of the guns exploded, fatally damaged by Striker’s devices. As the smoke cleared, it was plain to see the volley had blackened the port-side gun deck, blowing chunks of the wood away. If she had been in water, the Hind would have sunk.
But this time, one of the balls clipped the Red Jack, tearing away a slice of her tail. A wave of anger swamped Nick, the scream of the wood as painful as if it had been his own flesh. “Fire!” he roared.
Striker lit the fuse of his enormous weapon, and it thundered, recoiling halfway across the deck. It released a second rain of metal into the air, this one made up of old nails, small shot, and scrap meant to rend flesh. Nick and Beadle fired as well, but theirs were the grappling guns, sending claws deep into the Leaping Hind’s side. The prey was caught, and Athena rose in the air until the towing cables snapped tight. She pulled a little ahead, simultaneously angling away from the threat of the Hind’s cannons and keeping the crippled ship aloft. The bosun immediately began affixing pulleys to the lines.
And now it was time for Nick to play his part. The gunners were back on deck, readying baskets that would be lowered down to haul away booty. Nick exchanged his grappling gun for a brace of pistols and jumped to the rail, one hand on the rigging as he balanced over a thousand yards of empty sky. Four men would board the enemy ship, but they would not board alone.
“Gwilliam!” he called, and the flock of huge black ravens circled closer.
The ash rooks—for that was what they called themselves—were a disconcerting sight. They loved shiny things, adornments most of all, and traded their service for glittering loot. And like Striker in his metal-clad coat, they wore as much as they could carry without impeding their mobility. One of them landed beside Nick, his huge, sharp claws easily grasping the thick wood. This one had what looked like a crested helmet and a chain of enameled metal around its throat, and Nick recognized it as the ravens’ king. It gave a long, rattling croak.
You are ready at last, wingless one? Gwilliam said, touching Nick’s mind the same way Athena did.
“I may be wingless, but I am not flightless.” Nick felt a lift in his heart, the excitement before a moment of daring. His body ached with the need to prove his strength and speed.
The bosun had fastened a wooden bar to the pulley on the grappling lines, and Nick grasped it with both hands. In a moment, he had launched himself from the rail and slid down the grappling cable, releasing the brake to rocket through the air at stomach-churning speed. The sky opened beneath him, and with a rush of sheer joy, he was lost in the mist, the wet fingers trailing over his skin and hair. And then his view of the Hind opened up below, a picture of men and rooks and the aftermath of the exploded boiler. The birds harried the crew of the Hind, using beak and claw to ensure Nick landed safely. He slowed his descent, leaping lightly to land on the enemy deck. Striker, Digby, and Royce followed.
They drew their weapons the moment their feet touched a solid surface, wasting no time leaping into the fray. The fight was near the center of the ship, the combatants clustering together in their eagerness to bash heads. Nick ducked as a blue-coated officer swept his sword through the air, then dodged again to avoid the sweep of an ash rook’s wing. And then he was in the thick of it, firing once, twice, and then drawing his knives when the risk of shooting his own men became too great.
There were perhaps twenty crewmen on the Hind, all clad in blue and white. One came at Nick with an ax, and he twisted aside only to feel the wind of the blade’s passage kiss his cheek. He drove his fist into the man’s gut, aiming upward to the ribs, and the airman flew backward, crashing hard against the disabled aether pump. Someone crashed into Nick’s back, driving him to his knees, and the next sweep of the ax would have split his skull if Gwilliam hadn’t appeared from the sky, claws raking the airman’s face. As the man cowered, Nick delivered a boot to his head, knocking him cold.
Someone fired an aether gun, blasting a smoking bite from the rail. Nick swore. Aether weapons were experimental and unpredictable. Striker made them, but Nick hadn’t expected to find one in enemy hands—especially not one powerful enough to blow pieces out of the airship’s hull. A misplaced blast at the balloon could make the difference between floating gently to earth and dropping like a stone. Unexpectedly—for the sake of the Jack and the Hind alike—Nick’s priority became getting that gun out of the fight.
He grabbed the ax from the unconscious airman, holding it in his right hand; a knife was in the left. There were men down already, their blue and white uniforms stained with red. The boiler and the blunderbuss had taken their toll, as had the rooks—but now the enemy was falling at Nick’s hands as he worked his way through the mob. Another crewman raised a barrel over his head, meaning to throw it into the struggling crowd, but Nick kicked his knees out from under him, sending him crashing to the deck. The barrel bounced and rolled away, nearly bowling Digby over. Nick brought the butt of the ax handle down on the barrel-thrower’s skull, making sure he didn’t get up for a while.
The aether gun fired again with a sound like tearing silk, earning a storm of angry caws from the ash rooks. Black feathers fluttered through the air. Nick forced his way out of the eye of the maelstrom, struggling for room to move and to see what fool had the weapon. Pistols fired, men screamed, and the stink of gunpowder and burned flesh made it nearly impossible to breathe. He had barely broken through to the edge of the fight when he met the captain, easy to identify by the miles of gold braid on his coat. The uniform identified him as a captain of the Merchant Brotherhood of the Air and, like his officer, the captain wore a sword—probably meant more for show than for use. But he also had a pistol, and he held that with the ease of an expert shot.
“Withdraw your men, Niccolo,” the captain snarled. He was tall and ruddy, with salt-and-pepper hair in short, tight waves.
It didn’t surprise Nick that his adversary knew his name. The Red Jack had earned its reputation. “Captain Hughes, I presume,” he said. “Give up and you keep your life.”
“Not bloody likely, pirate.” Hughes jerked the nose of the gun.
Acting on instinct, Nick threw the ax. He was a knife man, not used to the balance of the heavier weapon, and it flew wide. But the distraction bought him a sliver of time, just enough to follow with the blade in his left hand. That struck the captain’s fingers, making him release the pistol. It fell to the deck, discharging with a bang as it spun away.
There was a sound behind Nick. He dropped on instinct, avoiding the blast of the aether gun by the breadth of a cat’s whisker. Then he rolled to his feet and launched himself through the air, grappling the shooter and bearing him to the ground. Nick had the impression of a brown suit, brown hair, and a forgettable face. They rolled over and over, scraps of broken metal digging into their flesh as they went. Nick thumped the man’s head against the deck, then smashed a fist into his face. The man went limp, but Nick hit him again just to be sure. When his eyes rolled up in his head, Nick scrambled to his feet, grabbed the aether gun, and surveyed the situation.