Sterling Reynolds narrowed his eyes as he stood at the prow of the Victory. In the distance the pirate's airship wheeled into a turn as the curs tried to flee in the pale gloom of a late winter's dawn. The Victory was barely three hours out of Anubia, jewelled capital of the New British Empire. These pirates are brazen, Reynolds scowled. We'll see how bold they are in the cells of Adélla.
They had chased the pirates for half an hour. Ahead loomed the twin peaks of the Alsaam Valley. Two enormous mountains capped with glistening powder snow, pines peppering the broad slopes of their titanic shoulders. Manoeuvrability would be limited. The pirates had run out of luck.
Gripping the guardrail tighter Sterling steadied himself against the surge of the ship as the engine crew gave her full burn. Electrified ozone flooded his nostrils. A shadow loomed to the port side. He cast a sideways glance at the frigate gliding past sleek and spry, the flagship dropping behind in her hulking lethargy. His frown deepened. No imperial rose graced those sails. Instead a white hand stood outstretched against an ebon backdrop. The Hand of Order, militant branch of the Hallowed House.
Flanking the Victory out to starboard was a sight that settled Sterling; a pristine corvette of the Imperial Navy. Fresh out of Beckket & Jones' shipyard, sailing proud with the crimson rose emblazoned in the centre of the white envelope for all to see. Sterling felt his chest swell as the corvette steamed ahead of the pack. A sagittate smile played over his lips.
Spinning on his heels Sterling set off towards the aftcastle. Through the tinted aeroglass of the bridge, he could see hurried movement. An order from Emperor Astreios, no doubt. The door flew open and a young crewmember scurried down the steps and through the double doors leading belowdecks. Sterling watched the commotion as he strode across the weather deck to retake his captain's seat.
All was quiet on the bridge. Astreios sat the rose throne, smirking as he followed the advance of the Victory's outflyers. The emperor traced their trajectories behind his cobalt eyes, predicted retreating lines of the pirate vessel; relished the thrill of the hunt. Sterling saw the hidden predator rising to the surface, betraying its nature with subtle flags. The flick of the tongue at the corner of the mouth. The narrowing eyelids. The single-minded focus.
Sterling held no doubts about it. Astreios was a shark in the shape of a man. His father Rickard had seen it in the young heir from an early age. In the eerie still of the bridge, Sterling remembered one night of his childhood, creeping out of his room late in the evening to eavesdrop on a clandestine conversation between his father and Emperor Justinius.
With a vividness bordering on hallucinatory, Sterling relived the shock at hearing Justinius speaking so candidly. He had seen his son's predatory instinct for himself and confided in Rickard, just as Astreios now, on occasion, confided in Sterling. The hushed and long forgotten counsel of his father dwindled into silence as Sterling came back to reality at the hissing of the bridge's radio receiver.
The captain of the corvette was approaching combat range. He asked permission to fire. Turning to look at Sterling, the radio operator awaited the answer. With a curt nod Sterling gave the order. He stood and took a few steps closer to the aeroglass of the bridge. Smoky insects rushed towards the target, rockets unleashed from the corvette's battery.
Banking with no sense of grace, the pirates managed to evade the first salvo. Sterling raised an eyebrow at their apparent skill. A smug sigh escaped his lips. Trapped between the peaks and the Navy, the corsairs' hope grew thinner every second. The next rockets would find their marks. When the smoke trails once again filled the open sky between the ships Sterling's heart soared.
The port side of the corsair's ship was peppered with explosions. Wood splinters sliced through the air as the hull caved in. Thick plumes of fuel-rich smoke billowed from the port engine as the vessel slowed and began to list. Sterling snapped round to face the radio operator once more. The young man looked up, ready to relay orders.
"Hold fire and close for board—" Sterling was cut off by Astreios before he could finish.
"Have the corvette fall back. Let the Hand deal with this one."
Sterling flicked a glance over at the emperor.
"My emperor, standard procedure is to board and arrest pirates wherever poss—"
"I know the procedures of my own navy, Sterling," Astreios said, that predatory smirk playing over his face as he strode forwards to stand beside his captain. He tapped the aeroglass with a finger as he pointed to the scene unfolding before them.
"These pirates were so unafraid of the law—my law—that they dared to operate a hairs breadth from Anubia. They'll learn true terror."
The Hand's frigate closed on the pirate's crippled airship and pulled alongside it. Sterling's eyes widened as great gouts of flame belched from the broadside of the frigate. In scant seconds the ship was a writhing mass of flame. The ropes and timbers holding the gondola beneath the armoured airbags burned away.
"My emperor, this is barb—"
"This is justice! Sterling... divine... immutable... justice."
Disgust welled in Sterling's guts as he clocked the silhouettes of men leaping, wreathed in flames, to their doom. The gondola dropped away from the airbags as the last of its tethers gave way. The crunch of a shattering airship echoed for miles when the vessel slammed into the ground. Sterling turned away from the scene. Astreios remained transfixed.
"Order the Hand to burn everything to ash," Astreios said, eyes never shifting. "Let nothing remain."
Dutifully the radio operator relayed the message. Sterling felt his blood boil as he caught the occasional glimpse of the massacre. The Hand's frigate swept over the crashed ruin of the pirates' vessel, drenching her in flame with every pass. Acrid smoke flooded the sky as the Hand made good on their orders, incinerating all beneath them.
Making lazy circles above the barbarism, the corvette waited, silent in the sky. Sterling watched the vessel through the aeroglass, refusing to let his gaze drift toward the scenes below. The Hand's frigate imposed itself between the vessels as it made another pass. Bright jets of flame cascaded from the mouths of dragon-headed cannons. Sterling squinted.
Satisfied, Astreios returned to his rose throne. Delicate gilt filigree crept over everything bar the velvety cushions. The emperor slumped in the seat, legs dangling over the armrests and head tilting back as he exulted. His eyes moved towards Sterling with an expectant look. He cleared his throat and gestured for the journey to recommence.
Sterling gave the orders. Aetherium was charged and the ship gained altitude. The escorts dropped back into formation, flanking the Victory as she soared above the mountainous peaks. In the ensuing silence he tried his hardest to erase the images from his mind. As he closed his eyes he saw it. The man wreathed in flame as he leapt overboard for a quick death.
Minutes drifted into hours as the journey continued. Astreios monologued sporadically to his captive audience. Here and there he'd look to Sterling for approval or even a faint challenge, but the captain of the Victory kept his replies to the bare minimum. In the tedious midsection of one of Astreios' sermons on the Hallowed House the slick haired radio operator hesitantly interrupted.
"Captain, it's the Avril. They're saying there was an... 'incident' in the recovery of the missing orders."
Sterling frowned. Astreios bristled at the disruption.
"What kind of... 'incident'?" said Sterling.
"They're saying... saying that some organised criminals gave them unforeseen considerable resistance. That a 'low-life smuggler' eluded their pursuit orders in hand. Current bearing unknown."
A thunderclap of silence exploded on the bridge. The radio operator's shifty green eyes darted between Sterling and the emperor. Sterling grit his teeth and turned to Astreios. The emperor seethed.