Full summary: Called back into service, retired airship captain Tobias Treadwell is off on a grand adventure for the glory of Queen and Country. Along for the ride are a ragtag crew of former pirates, a creepy cook, an Imperial watchdog, and a half-mad aeromancer with enough power to level a small country. And Tobias hasn't even met the enemy yet.
Blue's boring monologue: So this is a complete test. Does anyone want to read the rest? Is anyone interested? I'm a complete steampunk freak (it doesn't entirely fit that genre, I know, but go with it) and I want to spread the love for it. Please review and let me know what you think.
A Steampunk Tale
Of Captains, Retirement, and Far Too Much Alcohol
The first time he wakes up to the sound of pounding, Tobias manages to convince himself that it's his head, then rolls right over and goes back to sleep.
The second time, he passes it off as a noisy neighbor.
The third time, however, he realizes that it is not his head (though that's doing a pretty good imitation of the morning gong back at the Imperial Air-Fleet Academy). Nor is it a neighbor (though by the sound of it, they're starting up, too). Instead, someone is trying to break down his door.
Tobias would like to think that he's polite and courteous and helpful when he goes to see who the hell it is and what the hell they want. He also knows that he isn't. But, after all the whiskeys and bourbons that he drank yesterday, he thinks he can be forgiven for throwing open the door with enough force to knock out a small child and snapping, "What?" at the busty blond standing there.
The blond just smiles behind the modest hat-and-veil, though Tobias has no idea why she bothers with it when her dress is already halfway to off. "Don't give me that tone, Tobi," she scolds, as though he is an errant two-year-old. "And is that any way to greet a lady?"
Tobias makes a show of looking around, peering behind her and off to the side. Then he looks at her and raises an eyebrow. "A lady? Where?"
Cadence scowls and slaps his arm, then pushes past him into the house. He gravitates between irritation and amusement for a few moments, then decides that the only way to survive this visit (in lieu of several stiff drinks) is to have a sense of humor and settles on amusement. "Of course you can come in, Cadence. How wonderful to see you again. Please, don't be shy. Step right in."
As she always does, Cadence ignores him, surveying the modest interior of his home as she removes her hat. She sniffs in derision. "This house is a sty, Tobi. What have you been doing? The entire place reeks like a lower-city pub. Even I'm disgusted, and that's saying something."
Tobias closes the door behind her and sighs. "What do you want, Cadence? If you hadn't noticed, I'm retired. I can do whatever the bloody hell I want to in my free time. Which I am enjoying immensely, I might add, now that I'm not a part of Her Majesty's Imperial Air Fleet."
She gives him a too-sweet, too-innocent smile that instantly puts his instincts on alert; he remembers when she used to smile like that, when they were gutter rats and she had just thought up a plan that was brilliant or suicidal or both. It had usually ended with him in the middle of trouble and her laughing from a safe place. He takes a step back, wondering if he still has time to bolt for his bedroom. There's a good stash of sherry there. Even though he doesn't love the stuff (too much sweet, too little burn on the way down), it's enough to tide him over for a bit. At least until she leaves.
"Ah. About that, Tobi," she says, and her voice is the purr it always is when she's about to deliver bad news, and is enjoying every moment of it.
Tobias feels his blood run cold, and knows that it isn't just the draft from under his bathrobe. "Cadence," he warns, and if there's a bit of panic in his voice, he judges it to be entirely justified. "What have you done?"
Cadence twirls her hat in her hands, and couldn't look more innocent if she were surrounded by fat, happy kittens and dressed in frilly white. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Tobi. I'm just here to play messenger." And with a sweet smile, she pulls a letter from the bodice of her fashionable walking gown and offers it to him.
Tobias stares at the creamy envelope (and, more importantly, the damned seal set into the pretty blue wax) as though he's being offered a viper instead. After a moment of consideration, he dismisses the thought. He'd rather have the viper.
Her patience wearing thin, Cadence waves it under his nose. "Tobias. Take the damned thing already, or I'll read it to you and you won't have any room for those 'misinterpretations' you love to make."
He takes a second to glare at her, and then accepts the envelope with the resignation of a convict headed for the gallows. If he has to do whatever it is that is written there, he wants as much wiggle room as possible. Reading it himself, and not asking questions, there's a certain amount he can get away with. Empress Minerva won't accept any excuses if her favorite lady-in-waiting reads it to him, though, especially knowing their past together.
But when he finally gets the damned thing open, and removes the neat sheaf of papers, Tobias almost wishes he had let her read it to him. Maybe that way, it wouldn't be quite so horrifying. He shakes his head and looks up at his childhood friend (though he uses the term loosely). "I'm retired," he says flatly.
"Well, consider yourself un-retired," she fires back cheerfully, dropping her hat back onto her head. "Her Majesty even had Excelsior prepared for you, just like in the old days. She'll be waiting at Dock 9 in Mid-City three days from now. Don't be late." With a cheery wave and a wink (which he is sure she gives just because it annoys him), she heads back out the door, leaving him alone once more in his messy house, surrounded by empty bottles, dirty clothes, and the smell of old alcohol.
With a sigh, Tobias admits to himself that maybe, just maybe, this summons came at a good time.
He pushes a pile of unopened mail off a chair in front of the relatively bare kitchen table, then takes a seat and studies the letter. It's just like the ones he used to get, whenever Empress Minerva had an assignment for him that she wanted him to take care of personally. He remembers, somewhat wistfully, that there used to be a lot of those. And this one is no different. He sets aside the first page, which is simply the official announcement and completely useless, and picks up the second. It's handwritten, something that always makes him feel a bit proud. After all, how many other airship captains get letters penned by the Empress herself?
Not many, he thinks.
Dear Captain Treadwell,
It has been brought to Our attention that several merchants have recently filed complaints regarding the disappearance of a good number of their ships while on routes along the edges of the Wastelands. Normally, We would write it off as the superstition of sailors or the actions of pirates, but as We have also received reports from Admiral Ellsworth concerning his own garrison's encounters with this phenomenon, We are crediting as more than a simple rumor. What We have learned is inconclusive, but evidence has led Us to believe that the missing ships have not been destroyed, but have simply vanished, along with all hands. We would find it most helpful if you would undertake the mission to investigate.
Enclosed, you shall find the paperwork for your reinstatement as an Acting Captain in the Imperial Air Fleet, as well as for the return of the Excelsior to your command. However, your former crew has already been reassigned, and cannot be recalled in time for the launch. Therefore, We have taken the liberty of outfitting you with a new crew. Their files are also within. Furthermore, We have assigned to you another man We feel will be of use. Please review his file and contact Lady Cadence if you have any questions.
You are expected to present yourself on Dock 9 by noon this coming Wednesday. Please do not be late.
Minerva Elvira Aaliyah Romanov IV,
Empress of Elyria
Tobias wonders, absently, how Empress Minerva can sound so absolutely terrifying, even when not offering a single threat or harsh word.
Shaking off the thought, he sets the letter aside (carefully), and turns to the other papers. The first few are straightforward enough, returning him to his former position, and he signs where he needs to and puts them with the letter. Then he turns to the crew's papers—
And he stops in horror, eyes flickering over the names. He sets the paper down firmly, shakes his head to clear it, and looks again. But the names have not changed.
Tobias puts the list back on the table with shaking hands, unable to continue.
He will be sailing with some of the most infamous pirates captured in recent times.
He debates whether to cry or crawl into the nearest bottle. Both sound appealing at the moment. Instead, half-wondering if it could get any worse, he shuffles down to the last paper in the stack and draws out the file on the "other man" the Empress felt would be so helpful. He hopes that it will be nothing, maybe a well-known cartographer along for the ride, but of course, nothing can ever be easy. Tobias reads the very first line of information (this man's profession) and decides that a drink sounds very, very good.
He hasn't met an aeromancer yet who hasn't made him want to walk off the deck of his ship in the middle of a high-altitude flight.
Somehow, he gets the feeling that this one won't be much different.
Instead of a stiff shot of whiskey, Tobias heads for a man who can give him the next best thing—information. Paterson still knows everything there is to know about anyone even distantly connected to the Forces, and he seems to have been waiting for just this opportunity, as he has already poured the tea by the time Tobias walks through his door unannounced. Neither of them cares much for inane pleasantries, so Tobias wastes no time pushing the aeromancer's file across the table.
"Can you tell me anything?" he asks, accepting the delicate cup of green tea that Paterson's butler, Sebastian, passes him.
Paterson hums to himself for a moment, then chuckles softly and returns the paper. "My condolences, Treadwell. The Empress just set you as watchdog to a half-mad boy with more power than a hurricane. I've heard that he's been in and out of the Imperial Asylum more times than you've been called up before the tribunal."
Tobias winces. That's many, many times, indeed. But surely there must be a reason for Empress Minerva to add him to the crew. Half-groping for answers, he ventures, "But he's powerful?"
The old man looks halfway between grim and incredulous, neither emotion one that Tobias is used to seeing on his face. "Powerful? You could say that. He passed the Aeromancer Qualification Exams in three days. He was ten at the time. Since his last release from the Asylum, the Empress has had him alone on Weatherwatch in the palace, even though he just recently turned twenty-four. You won't have to worry about his power being in short supply, just his sanity."
Tobias stares down at the name on the paper, wondering just how he is going to survive this flight. Pirates (both in his crew and in the air) waiting to pounce, mysterious happenings in the Wastelands (which are already bad enough on their own), disappearing ships (which could just be rumor), and an insane aeromancer (who's got enough power that the Empress has had him steering storms for her).
If it was anyone else in command, this might be a suicide mission.
Tobias just hopes he can stockpile enough whiskey to last him through the trip.