Chapter 4, In Which We Make New and Exceedingly Strange Acquaintances
His airship was small, built nothing like the Hephaestus. In fact, it looked remarkably like a smaller version of an ocean-going vessel, a caravel, perhaps, with a wide, bladder-like canopy arched over it instead of masts and sails. The prow was carved into the shape of a fierce bird’s head with a corresponding broad tail at the stern. At first glance I thought the ship was painted black, but realized the wood itself was ancient and impossibly weathered. Traces of original paint were visible in places, but worn to a gray that would require extensive study to determine its color on first application. The sides of the ship were scored and scraped. As our captor escorted us up the gangplank, I noticed that a chunk missing from the side about the size of my head looked remarkably like it had been bitten out.
The planking of the deck was weathered and damaged as well. “From the looks of your ship,” I said, “you make a habit of annoying your neighbors, Mister Sky Pirate.”
He laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Sky pirate? You’re certainly quick to pass judgment on first meeting.” The man released his hold on Luli and gestured for us to sit on the crates that were strewn about the deck. As he moved away from us, I caught a fresh soap scent, hardly what I expected.
“You fired on our ship, sir,” I responded. “An unprovoked attack.”
The man raised a dark eyebrow, all trace of amusement gone from his face. He tucked his firearm—an antique weapon of some sort—into the waist of his black trousers and folded his arms across his exquisite gold-figured waistcoat. “Unprovoked?” His voice was hard now, an accent I could not identify creeping in to nullify the previous impression that he was an American. “After what you have wrought, you dare speak of ‘unprovoked’?”
He lunged forward, arms swinging down to clenched fists at his sides. I could swear something like a spark literally flashed in his icy blue eyes. Luli slid from her perch on the crate beside me and shielded me.
“Vatya,” said another voice from behind our captor. “Calm yourself, please, before you do the young women harm.”
From the shadows of the cabin at the prow stepped an older man with thinning white hair around an angular face. He was clad in a simple brown tunic over tan trousers and boots, and wore a pendant of some sort on a copper chain around his neck.
Our captor glared at me, but brushed imaginary dirt from his pristine white sleeves, adjusted black jeweled cufflinks and folded his arms again. The older man stepped up beside him and bowed low from the waist. “Forgive my young friend’s lack of manners,” he said, with a Spanish or Portuguese accent. “I am Father Bartolomeu de Gusmão and you are on my ship, the Passarola. Generally Vatya has lovely manners, but his kind is quite hot tempered when provoked. Has he introduced himself?”
He glanced at the younger man, who scowled back. “I thought not. He is Vatyaupamya Rudra Resman Pavaka of the—“
“Not any longer,” he interrupted in that same intense, angry tone. “Good manners do not require revealing my family history to the enemy.”
Father Bartolomeu behaved as if Mister Pavaka—I was unsure of the proper address, but was not about to call our captor by what sounded like a pet name—had not spoken. “And your name, Miss?”
I summoned a polite smile, as if we were being introduced at an afternoon tea. “I am Miss Julia Wesley, reporter for the Shades Valley Argus, and this is my assistant, Miss Luli Xiang,” I said.
“Ah, Miss Luo,” Father Bartolomeu grinned. “I am so pleased to meet you at last.”
Mister Pavaka and I exchanged puzzled glances. “When did you speak with her?” he said, at the same moment I tried to say the same thing to her as well as, “Since when is that your surname?” As the human mouth is ill-equipped to handle two simultaneous comments, my words came out as something completely unintelligible.
“And I am pleased to meet you, Father Bartolomeu.” Luli bowed after the Chinese fashion, then turned to me. “My surname is Luo. Did you ever ask me?”
“Perhaps we should adjourn to the cabin below,” Father Bartolomeu said. “I believe we are in dire need of liquid refreshment.”
“My crew members will be searching for us,” I said.
“I’ll send them a message,” Luli said.
I peered into her eyes. “Whose side are you on, Luli?”
“I would not betray you, Miss Julia,” she said solemnly. “I am sworn to protect you.”
“You are—what?” I felt as if I had stepped off the edge of aethera firma and plummeted earthward. Either that or entered a looking glass by mistake.
Luli smiled slightly. “No, the time is still not right.”
We followed the older man through the cabin door and down a sharply spiraled metal stair into the hold of the airship, Mister Pavaka’s boot heels echoing behind us. The stair led into a dimly lit room furnished with matching overstuffed sofa, divan, two chairs, an ottoman and several small tables. A worn Persian carpet covered the floor, and the walls were hung with antique Indian tapestries. The feel of the room was as if we had stumbled into Scheherazade’s living room. Two doors led off the main room, and a curtained alcove served as a galley.
Luli and I perched on the divan, as its lack of back and sides better accommodated our gowns. “Shall I make tea?” Father Bartolomeu asked, walking toward the galley.
Mister Pavaka stood in the center of the room, fists on hips. In the dim light his eyes flared icy blue. “Enough civility,” he said. “I want to know why you are destroying the aether—and why I shouldn’t destroy you for it.”