Most airships employ a tiller crew of six to eight men, depending on the size of the ship and its rudder. Working in teams of two to four, they guide the ship through the capricious currents above the dusty sea beds. Newer dirigibles are equipped with a ship’s wheel, which can be managed by a pair of crewmen for a four-hour shift, but older crafts still rely on the long-handled four-man tiller.
The Jade Dragon was one of the oldest and largest airships, and she had just lost half of her helmsmen.
The klaxon continued to sound. Questions floated in the lacunae between each blast of the horn. The noise coupled with the perfumed air made me light-headed.
“I need to return to the bridge,” said the Captain. “I would leave you here, but frankly, there have been five deaths on my ship since we set sail, and at least one of them is connected to you.” She placed the rose pomander on the narrow bed where it glittered with reflected sunlight.
I blinked in surprise, and Jax leapt to my shoulder, wrapping his tail around my neck protectively. “‘At least?’ Captain, I am not my father’s daughter.” Not anymore. Not if what the Captain had told me was true.
“If you were not your father’s daughter, I would not take this precaution. Until I understand what your presence on my ship means, I want you where I can see you.”
She took me by the elbow and steered me out of the room.
I had expected more panic, more chaos, but the corridor was eerily empty. My fellow passengers were following the safety protocols, it seemed. “In case of emergency,” read the standard disclaimer, “Remain calm. Return to your cabin or the nearest passenger lounge, whichever is closest, until the alarm is silenced. If evacuation becomes necessary, a uniformed crew member will escort you to a lifeboat.”
Five men fell in around us, three in front and two behind. Each wore the green livery of the Dragon’s crew and a cutlass on his hip. Guards, of course. I should have expected them. They must have come as soon as word of the incident on the tiller deck reached the Captain.
“Am I in trouble?” I whispered to Jax. A rhetorical question, mostly.
He listened for a moment, head cocked to one side. The clamor of the alarm would certainly challenge even the Saguin’s strange senses, I thought.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “She is mostly concerned with her ship. In her mind you’re just a piece that may or may not fit this puzzle.”
The klaxon stopped. The sudden absence of noise made me stumble, and the Captain’s hand tightened on my arm. I had not realized how heavy sound could be.
“Sorry,” I said, but Morrow had already released her grip.
We walked towards the bow without speaking. Signs of life began to return. Music drifted out of the starboard passenger lounge, and several voices competed for precedence, each laden with honest relief and feigned nonchalance. Somewhere behind us a door creaked open and clicked shut.
We climbed the steps to the A deck and walked through the chart room to the Dragon’s bridge. Two of the guards followed us in, stationing themselves by the door. I wondered if this were standard protocol, or if it had something to do with me. Unsure of the etiquette, I stopped at the back of the chamber. The Captain strode across the chamber to a tall table to which a map was tacked. She stared down at it, drumming her fingers on the tabletop. A man hovered just out of arm’s reach, clearly waiting to be acknowledged.
“Report,” said the Captain after a long pause.
The man spoke crisply, his voice dripping with technical terms and references to the internal workings of the ship. I knew I should pay attention, but I could not help but be distracted by the immense convex windows on all sides of the room.
The Jade Dragon‘s bridge was set in a half-spherical protrusion at the bow of the gondola. From this vantage I saw the dunes of Loess spread out below us, her striped sands undulating from one end of the horizon to the the other. I knew that the city was not far behind us, but the land along our route was uninhabited. Uninhabitable, some said, because of the constant dust storms that made it impossible to land an airship or shuttle on the parched sea-bottom. Already I could see a tell-tale shadow far to the east that portended a squall.
A sudden shift in the mood of the room drew my attention back to the Captain, or perhaps it was Jax’s claws flexing against my skin. In one hand Morrow held a small metal sphere. At first I thought it was the rose pomander, returned to its original shape, but she had left that in my room. When I looked more closely, I could see that it was in fact only a half-sphere, charred and cracked around the edges. It lacked the gems and fine engraving of my piece, but the similarity was disturbing. The reporting officer stared at me, his suspicions evident in his stiff posture and the set of his jaw.
“This makes five,” said the Captain.
This post is part of the Jade Dragon series. It follows Death and Roses, and is completely unprompted. Though I try to make these installments enjoyable as individual pieces, I highly recommend that you read the series from the beginning to really get what’s going on.