IT WAS the politeness that changed Tobias’s entire life. Well, it was actually a split-second decision to try being a hero, but he wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for the politeness. The pirate stories he’d grown up on were full of wild-eyed and desperate men who swore like the sailors they subdued; who were mean, villainous, and often sported really ridiculous mustaches.
The man working his way down the line of passengers was calmer, quieter, and—not that Tobias was thinking about it too closely—clean-shaven. He held a soft cloth bag in his right hand and a nasty little Ledent pistol in his left, and as he moved, he kept up a constant patter.
“That’s right, missus, I’ll have those earrings; no, no, not your wedding rings, you keep those. Sir, your watch— Wait, what’s the inscription say? Twenty-five years in the Corps? No, you keep it. Your wallet, now, empty that if you please; thank you. Yes, miss, that’s quite a sweet portrait, have you a safe place for it? Yes? Did he give you— No? Then I’ll have the locket and chain both. Thank you. Cash? Gold? No? All right, then.”
The man watched as Baronne Chénier jerked a heavy twist of pearls from her neck and flung it at his feet. “You want my jewels, you horrible man? You and my miserable bastard of a first husband can crawl for them.” Her rings followed the necklace, bouncing across the rug to bump against the polished toes of his shoes.
“Thank you, missus,” the man said, as sweetly as he’d said everything else. He dropped to one knee, flipped the jewelry into his bag with the snubby nose of the gun, then rose smoothly.
That was the moment that Tobias decided the man couldn’t possibly be any sort of threat. He was outnumbered by the people in the salon; there was no way he could hope to escape if they banded together! They only needed someone to make the first move, and he would be the one. The man had moved on to Miss Ford, who was the daughter of some timber baron or something. Once he was done with her, Tobias would take the man down and that would be that.
“Those earrings, miss, are they rubies?”
Miss Amberleigh Ford lifted her chin and looked down her nose at him, an impressive feat considering that she was a full thirty centimeters shorter than her interrogator. “Of course they are,” she said, voice as chilly as the ice field they were drifting over. “All of my jewelry is real.”
“Splendid,” he said, and he held up the sack. “Please put everything in here, miss.”
“And if I refuse?” She crossed her arms.
“Miss,” he said, giving her a cajoling smile. “I’m sure you’ve plenty more pretty things in your room. What are these, to you? Besides….” And here, the smile fell away as he leaned toward her, his voice getting louder for the first time since he’d announced his presence. “You poor thing, those colors do nothing for your complexion. I’m sure one of the other women on board would have mentioned it. Or perhaps they wouldn’t.”
Tobias was fascinated by the change that such a simple statement wrought on the young woman. She flushed right down to the collar of her tea dress, her mouth opening and closing as her hands fell to her sides. Miss Ford removed her earrings, her necklace, and the rings from her fingers with sharp movements, dropping them into the bag.
“Thank you, miss, and wear emeralds next time, won’t you?” A grin flashed at her, and then it was Tobias’s turn.
“All right, young man, your wallet and your watch, if you please.”
“I brought neither with me,” Tobias lied, staring at the gun. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with this.” He made a grab for the man’s left hand, managing to force it up toward the ceiling. The gun and its attendant possibility of death demanded the whole of his attention, which was why the blow to his chest was a surprise. Tobias grunted and looked down, away from the struggle, and in that split second of inattention the man struck him again.
“Do not move.” The cold metal of the Ledent’s barrel pressed against his cheek, just under Tobias’s right eye. “On your knees, lad, and put your hands behind your back. That’s it.”
He was hard-pressed to decide which was worse: the burning humiliation of failure, or the fact that he had been winded and subdued with only two strikes. The man cuffed him, then helped him to his feet, which was strange enough to make him forget his embarrassment. “What the—”
“You’ll see. Now,” the man said, tugging him out of the line of people, “since you claim to be free of valuables, I think I’ll make do with you. Stand here quietly, please, while I finish up. Oh, and next time you want to pretend you’ve left your watch elsewhere?”
The man seemed to be waiting for a reply, so Tobias said, “Yes?”
“Make sure your chain’s not visible.” He gave the young man a quick little smirk, then went back to the line of passengers. Ten minutes later, he shoved the bag into Tobias’s hands and looped the drawstring around his cuffs, then bowed to the assembly. “Thank you kindly,” he said, before he hauled his loot through the salon door and disappeared.
“ONE thing I’d like to know, lad,” the man said, as he unhooked the mooring lines of his own ship from the frame of the big airship’s landing deck. “What’s your name?”
“Tobias Poole. Who’re you?”
“Toby Poole? Hm.” He helped Tobias across the growing gap between the two ships, then leaned against his own ship’s frame, his feet still on the landing. “As for myself, I’m crushed! You have no idea who I am?”
“Tobias. Would I ask if I did?” Tobias rolled his eyes, biting his lip as an air current tilted the decking under his feet, causing him to wobble.
“People do strange things,” the man said, swinging easily onto the platform beside Tobias. “Honestly, Toby, you don’t know who I am?”
“My name is Tobias,” Tobias said, watching as the man pulled an expanding grille across the mouth of the platform and latched it into place. “No, you’re right, I do know. It’s just that I wanted to be sure you were Baron Rettichkopf before I said anything.” He had no idea if the man would recognize the puppet’s name, but it was the only thing he could think of.
“Rettich—oh, Toby, how childish. Let’s go inside, shall we?” He nudged Tobias down the short corridor, leaning around him to undog the hatch.
“Tobias! Look, just tell me who you are. It’s not as if I can run away to the nearest constabulary building and tell them where to find you.” Leaning away from the man, Tobias wondered what was going to happen to him. “Why did you kidnap me, anyhow?”
“After you,” he said, holding the hatch as if they were entering a club. “Does the name Caledfryn Heddwyn Hawthorne mean anything to you?”
“Only that your parents may have disliked you,” Tobias said, grimacing as his mouth ran on without him. “Wait, Hawthorne? You’re English, and you’re an air pirate…. You’re the—you’re The Hawk, aren’t you?” He waited in the corridor, watching the other man.
“More or less. Is that what they’re calling me, these days? Hawk is better than pigeon, I suppose,” Caled said, securing the door. “The same. Please, if you’re planning on swooning, wait until we’ve reached the salon.”
“Swoon? You think either poorly of me or highly of yourself.” Tobias snorted and looked around. It was a rather utilitarian hallway, closed off by a door half a meter to his right and another two or three meters to his left. “Which way to your undoubtedly opulent salon? Are you planning on killing me?”
“I see my attempts at humor are all for naught. No more of that, then.” He raised his brows and shook his head. “Killing you would be a waste of time and effort.” Caled held up his hands to forestall the inevitable protest.
“Not because I think no one would miss you, but rather because it would effectively end my life as well. I’m fairly sure I’d make a piss-poor murderer, and fortunately, I’ve never had to find out. As for the salon, it’s this way.” He gestured at the more distant door, then took Tobias’s arm and led him deeper into the ship.
“You’ve never killed anyone?” Taking an interest in one’s captor was probably very wrong, but Tobias had no other diversions. It wasn’t every day one met up with a semi-infamous air pirate, after all. And then there was the fact that he’d always wanted to have an adventure of the sort he’d read about in Boy’s Own, always wanted to do something dashing and brave. He frowned as Caled’s touch interrupted his thoughts, but he didn’t say anything.
“Not as far as I know,” Caled said, opening the door to reveal the sharp turning of another corridor, this one made warmer by a blond wainscoting and cream-colored paper with a tone-on-tone stripe. “I’ve wounded several, however; they’ve all lived. I can’t say I enjoyed doing it, either.” They passed two doors, slightly offset, then debouched into a snug little salon with a surprisingly large window. “Promise me you’ll behave, won’t you? No more fooling about, trying to wrestle my gun away from me. It’s not a toy, and you could really hurt yourself with it.”
Tobias honestly did try to keep his laughter down to a genteel chuckle, but it escaped his control. He dropped onto the chesterfield that stood below the window, chortling helplessly for a minute or so.
“If you’re quite finished?” Caled’s prim disapproval set Tobias off again, and the man sighed as he waited. “I was unaware that being concerned for your safety was so… amusing.”
“It was the way you said it,” Tobias said, pressing his lips together to muffle another snicker. “You sounded just like… like… like a nursemaid!” Or at least the nursemaids in the stories he’d read.
“Nurse was forever warning me against doing myself a harm, as she put it. I suppose it’s only right that I parrot her oft-cried cautions.” He sighed, then fished a set of keys out of the tiny writing desk at his hip. “Do you want your hands free? Again, you have to promise you won’t do something silly.”
“All right, I solemnly vow to continue being an upstanding citizen.” Tobias shrugged at Caled. “I’d put a hand over my heart, but….”
“Yes, yes. Here, stand up.” Once he’d helped Tobias to his feet, Caled unlocked the cuffs and stepped back. “There. Now, I’ve got to go make sure we get home safely. You can come along if you like, or you can stay here. I suppose you could have a nose ’round the galley, if you’re hungry—but stay away from the stove, there’s something wrong with the gas valve and I only just got it shut off.”
“I’ll go with you,” he said, rubbing his wrists a bit. “I never did get up the courage to ask if I could see the pilothouse on the Reine Della Victoire.”
“Cockpit,” Caled said, beckoning at Tobias. “First thing to know, Toby, is that you’re not to touch anything in the cockpit unless I tell you to, no matter how shiny.”
“Tobias,” he said, halfheartedly, as he followed Caled back the way they’d come. “I don’t want to touch anything, I just want to see what it looks like.”
“In my experience, just looking often leads to just wanting to see what it feels like, and from there you have… accidents. And screaming. And occasionally very, very irate parents.”
He wasn’t entirely sure that Caled was talking about airships, but Tobias decided that it was better not to ask. “Shall I put my hands in my pockets?”
“No, because you’ll probably bump something with your elbow,” Caled said, but his tone was airy. He opened the door and clattered down four metal steps, then paused before a door that looked like the hatch they’d entered through. “Do you know anything about flying?”
“I know about how the curve of a wing creates lift, and that helium and hydrogen rise, which is what enables airships to get off the ground, and that without propulsion, airships are at the mercy of the weather. They’re still quite vulnerable, but not as much as in the old days.” Tobias ducked his head. “I, um, tend to skip the technical parts in favor of exploring the jungle and the like.”
“Exploring the jungle?” Caled gave him a funny look, then shrugged. “Just don’t touch anything.”
Tobias decided to keep quiet on the subject of his daydreams. “All right.”
The cockpit was a spare, functional place, with a folding chart table, a wireless/telegraphy set, and a number of gauges, dials, and switches. Tobias cocked his head and pointed at the wheel assembly. “That looks like it came out of a steamship!”
“Same idea, really,” Caled said, reaching over and pushing the engine order telegraph’s handle forward two spaces. A few seconds later, a bell rang twice and he nodded to himself. “Can you read charts?”
“Of information? Yes.” Tobias was busy peering at the wireless set, admiring the compact efficiency of its design.
“No, navigational charts,” Caled said, as he turned the wheel counterclockwise.
“Oh, well, no. You’ve a message, here, on the tape. Would you like it?”
“I’m a bit busy at the moment.” He checked the receding bulk of the Reine Della Victoire, then looked at the compass. “I’ll look at it later.”
“It might be important,” Tobias said, tearing the tape free and moving to stand beside Caled. Given the fact that Caled was a pirate, the contents of the message struck him as more exciting than they would be otherwise. “It says, No capon for dinner, no venison either. Advise.”
“You—” Caled jerked around to gawk at him. He closed his mouth, his eyes narrowing as he considered Tobias again. “Can you transmit as well as you interpret?”
He picked up the dividers from the chart table and tapped them against the edge of the wood. I can indeed.
“I hereby give you permission to touch the wireless. Send back… ah, send back, Prefer mutton and follow it with, fresh trout? Please.”
“If you’re sure that’s what you want to say,” Tobias said, even as he turned back to the machine. He was going to send a coded message! He knew all those hours with the Boy’s Own Morse Code Study Kit would pay off. “Do I leave it set at this frequency?”
“All right, then.” He sent the message, then tried to find an out-of-the-way spot to stand while Caled went back and forth between the wheel and his charts. “So where is home?”
“Thank you. Home is here.” He tapped an X on the shore of a lake in an otherwise unremarkable valley. “At least for now. Trysor House at Bones Cross.”
“Bones Cross?” Tobias’s mouth quirked as his brows rose. “Really?”
“Yes. It’s George’s fault, really, but beggars can’t be choosy.” Caled glanced at Tobias, took a breath as if he were going to speak, then picked up the sextant and went to the window. A minute later, he returned the sextant to its place before returning to the wheel and adjusting their course.
“And George is another man who claimed to be poor when you tried to rob him?” Crossing his arms, Tobias leaned against the wall for a moment. The wireless began ticking as a new message came in, and he turned to retrieve it.
Caled chuckled. “No, actually, he’s my… well, batman, valet, majordomo—though I’ve no other servants for him to be in charge of—chief cook and bottle washer. That sort of thing. He’s the one who sent the messages.”
“Oh.” He tore the tape free and checked it. The thought that the messages were merely about dinner was disappointing in the extreme. “In that case, George says, Plenty of mutton, trout is out of season. Do you have a reply?”
“Yes, just tell him all’s well, if you please, Toby.”
“Tobias!” Grumbling, he sent the reply and went back to leaning against the wall. “How much longer until we arrive?”
“If all goes well, about another hour and a half.” Caled took another sighting with the sextant, checked the chart, and went back to the wheel.
Not quite ninety minutes later, Caled waved at Tobias. “Come look out the window.”
Below and slightly ahead of them lay a lake, surrounded by a forest of mixed conifers and deciduous trees. “It’s nice,” Tobias said, “but not particularly… entrancing.”
“It’s a bit plain, but it’s home,” Caled said. “Would you please tell George to prepare for arrival?”
“All right.” The message was duly relayed, and Tobias took up a position where he could look out the window as the ship slowly drifted toward the trees.
“Thank you, Toby. Now, watch carefully.”
“Tobias.” He glared at the man, then went back to looking at the forest. Along the far shore of the lake, something odd was happening: trees seemed to be disappearing, replaced by a large, light-colored rectangle. As they dropped lower and drew closer, he realized that he was looking at— “A hidden landing area!”
“A hidden hangar, actually, but yes. Can you see the house now?”
“I think… oh, yes, there it is. Or at least what seems to be a garden, so I would guess that the house isn’t too far away.” A real pirate hideaway! It was as good as anything he’d ever read, perhaps better. After all, he was experiencing it firsthand, not just reading about it.
Caled nodded, then reached over and made an adjustment to one of the dials. “Good. You’re sharp-eyed and cleverer than I first thought.”
“I’d be offended, but in hindsight, trying to take your gun away from you was rather a foolish thing to do.” Tobias kept his eyes on the pale expanse of the hangar, trying to ignore the way his face grew warm. “Particularly since I don’t know how to use one, not really.”
“It certainly was. If you’re going to disarm someone, it’s best to do it in such a way that they’re not likely to want to pick up their weapon again.” Caled made another adjustment to the dial, pulled the engine order telegraph back one space, and watched the ground as they dropped further. “Or so that it’s impossible for them to do so.”
“I’ll remember that for the next time,” he said, his voice dry. Tobias forgot his mild irritation as the airship swung around, approaching the landing zone from one of the short edges of the rectangle. He only had a few seconds to look at the area before Caled dropped them neatly into the cradle that rose from the floor.
“And here we are. Welcome to Trysor House, home of Caledfryn Hawthorne, wanted man.”