Masque Ball: Chapter VIII

by Mallard

The pirates led us along the the empty rocky coastline north of the city, broken only by small hamlets and houses, and the occasional flash of light as one of the massive inter-city trains rumbled below us on its nighttime trek to Mornova or some other large city further north and inland.

Their airship was considerably smaller than ours, but was laden with at least as many people, as well as the chests and chests of stolen jewelery. Our advantage wasn’t much at first, but slowly, the distance between us closed, and I began to allow myself hope that we could overtake them before they made it back to their base.

I don’t know how much time passed. It was a long and uncomfortable flight, made the more so because I could not allow my mind to wander, concentrating as I was to keep the illusionary lenses in place. It did not require much effort once established, but I could feel myself fatiguing, the image wavering more and more, purple halos flickering in and out of existence around the distant lantern as the lenses distorted and bent before I could fix them.

And then, without warning, the light vanished.

“What happened?” the pilot demanded, and I was on my feet at once, peering into the space before the airship, feeling with my senses for the illusion that, though ragged, was still whole. For a wild moment, I thought there might have just been a momentary fluctuation in the gas lines, or the pirates had gone behind a cloud–never mind that we were well below the cloud level. I scanned and scanned again, sweeping the illusionary lenses back and forth across the dark and empty sky, until the lenses lost cohesiveness and I lost control over the illusion, unable to escape reality any longer.

“They must have found the beacon,” I said, my voice hoarse from the hours of disuse. I gripped the console before me, my fingers white and bloodless.

The pilot cursed and began fiddling with a set of knobs and graphs to his left, a method for determining his position I realized a moment later as he marked out a circle on a map. It was off the coastline, which meant the pirates had begun veering off to some base hidden out on one of the many uncharted isles that dot the northern waters of Cest-Weldersheen.

“Still nothing?” the pilot asked. He seemed particularly calm, and I imagined that, as the pilot of a military airship, little he saw could faze him anymore. I forced my tone even when I replied. He just nodded and kept the airship moving toward where the light had disappeared, though we had no way of knowing if the pirates had continued on the same path. Perhaps they had discovered the beacon and were now veering away after disabling it, following a longer and more circuitous path to their hideout. Or maybe they had known of it all along and had led us out here on a wild goose chase. In fear I suggested this to the pilot, but he shook his head, eyes still focused on his instruments, half-ignoring me now that I was no longer useful.

“They might’ve found it, sure, but I doubt they knew this whole time. A ship that size can’t carry enough fuel for a trip out here and back to Kestral. In fact, heavy as they had to be with all that loot, I’d expect them to be just about out of fuel.” I remembered Serah’s theory that the pirates had stalled in order to refuel their craft, that they could not have carried enough for a round trip. And I had stopped the flow before they were filled up, but how much had I changed the equation? What if I had stolen enough that they could not get back to their base at all? Would that be better or worse for us? Maybe, if I lit up the sky, we could watch them as they stuttered to a halt midair and were forced to descend or else play victim to the wind’s capricious moods.

And maybe, it would simply point us out to them and they would throw the hostages out of the gondola and flee.

So if we assumed that the pirates were not playing some game with us, that meant we had to be near their base. And, given their direction before the beacon went dark, it was somewhere off the coast. Which gave us little to go on at night, and the pilot knew it. We circled the area where the light had disappeared, moving in ever wider circles over black water, but the night was dark and it would have been impossible to see the pirate’s airship even had we flown directly over it. We could fly lower, but would risk giving ourselves away. Though I had grown used to the quiet roar of the engines in the rear of the airship gondola, it would be loud enough on a quiet night such as this, and without their own engine noise, it was unlikely the pirates would miss us, even if they could not see us.

At last, the sergeant came forward, and seemed to know without asking that the search was over. I wondered if he had been paying attention the whole time, as we tracked the beacon and lost it. He may not have been a likable man, but he was observant. He simply stood between the pilot and I for a few moments, staring out at the now-empty night, then sighed.

“Turn her back home, Gillespie,” he said to the pilot. “We’re done for tonight.” He turned to return to his seat.

“So what now?” I asked his back before he could leave, not expecting an answer.

He turned back to me and, where I expected anger at this PW who had forced his way into the mission and proved of limited help, I saw only determination. He may have failed in his duties, but this fight was far from over.

“We have a rough location,” he said. “We’ll send out ground, air, and water units as soon as we’re back home. Before the sun rises, there’ll be so many eyes out here, a mouse won’t be able to trip without setting off an alarm. We’ll find them.” He kept his gaze on mine for a moment, and added, “And we’ll find your girl. Don’t you worry about that.” He grinned suddenly, fiercely then, and I found my tired face stretching into its own grin.

“I won’t worry,” I replied. “Because I’ll be right there with you.”

The sergeant roared with laughter, and suddenly his hand was in my face. I jumped, and he chuckled again. “Sergeant Roger Amos,” he said. I stood and took his hand tentatively, and he nearly crushed mine.

“Uh, Specialist Victor Haas, of the Peace Workers,” I said, and he nodded as if he knew that already. Hells, he probably did.

“Good to meet you,” he said. “Just wish it’d been a better night for it.” He turned and walked back to his seat, steadying himself on the backs of the bare metal benches, and I sank back into the copilot’s chair. I watched outside at the overcast night as the pilot banked us around and began the long flight back to Kestral.

* * * * * * * *

Though the sun remained well below the horizon, the sky appeared lighter as the airship sped back across the city limits, the low clouds lit a perpetual orange by the gaslights of the city. Time was of the essence, and long before we docked, Sergeant Amos had used the blinker to flash messages in light to the watching sentries at the northern airship tower. The mayor’s mansion was closer to CandlePark than the northern tower, and this was the only reason we had rushed to the transportation hub earlier. The majority of the army’s fleet was kept docked at the four cardinal airship towers, the largest of which was in the north. Even as we began to slow down in preparation to dock, I saw another military airship depart from the tower, this one colored red and gold, the insignia of the Kestral Armed Forces emblazoned clearly on the side. Stealth was no longer a concern.

Below us, I knew, automobiles would be racing out of the city along the main inroads, and steamships would be launched from the coastal stations that the army maintained both within and without the city. The Royal Navy once was less than a tenth the size of the army, little regarded and rarely utilized.

After the invasion of the Patchwork Folk from the lands across the sea, however, the navy had ballooned in size, and now bases dotted the coastline, vigilant eyes turned outward for any return of the savages. Not all the bases were fully outfitted of course, but the ones nearest the populated regions, such as Kestral, could muster up a small armada if necessary, which would prove helpful once we found the pirates’ hideout.

I was exhausted on more levels than I could count, but sleep never entered my mind. I had had a lot of time to think on the flight back–too much time, really–and there was someone I needed to speak to.

I found her exactly where I thought I might. The security guard at the front desk looked up as I strode past him, and started to greet me, but his words turned into a choking sound suspiciously akin to laughter. I frowned at him, and took the stairs two at a time. Hattie Morrison’s office sat on the second floor of the Peace Worker headquarters, kitty corner across a busy intersection from the much larger headquarters of the Kestral Armed Forces.

She looked up when I entered, her face gray with exhaustion and pain. She did not look pleased to see me, but nor was she surprised. I stopped in the doorway. The office was dimly lit, a small oil lamp on her desk fighting to throw back the shadows cast by the much brighter street lamps outside, casting long shadows across a scarred oak desk and piles of paper that lay in various stages of disarray. Hattie had discarded her uniform coat, the khaki garment lying rumpled on the floor by a coat rack next to the door. The left sleeve was black in the yellow lamplight. In its place, Hattie wore a white undershirt, and I was pleased to see that the hastily-applied rag around her wound had been replaced with a proper bandage. The wound looked much less severe, her arm no longer soaked in blood, a clean pad held against her biceps by a wrap of sterile gauze.

“You’re looking better,” I said quietly.

“You look like shit,” she replied, and I could hear in her voice that she was fighting to stay awake. Fighting her body’s urge to pass out so it could work unimpeded on the healing process. She was near collapse; I could see that in her sunken eyes, hear it in her voice. But I also knew she was as stubborn as a mule, and she would pass out when she was ready, and not a damned minute sooner.

I tried to put my hands in my pockets, and they slid against rumpled silk. I looked down and realized I wasn’t wearing my usual coat, but was still clothed in that ridiculous tuxedo. No wonder the doorman had laughed; who had ever seen Victor Haas in formal wear?

I gave up and sat down in the chair across from Hattie. We stared at each other, and after a moment, a spark detached itself from the lamp on her desk and came to hover over my shoulder. I smiled up at the salamander.

“Hey, Kristopher,” I said.

(Serah is not with you,) he replied.

I nodded. “They got away.” I turned my attention to Hattie then. “We chased them north for…” damnit, I hadn’t asked how far we had gone, and had no way of hazarding a guess. “For just over two hours. We lost the beacon after they veered away from the coast, out to sea. The pilot thought they must be nearly out of fuel, which corroborates with them refueling at the mayor’s. They probably went to ground nearby.”

Hattie just sat there, dull eyes taking in my words. I stared at her. A sigh escaped me. “But you know all that. You probably got a report before I made it out of the tower.” She nodded then, a minor concession to the fact that I was still there.

I leaned forward in my chair, resting my arms on my knees. “Look,” I said. “What are you not telling me?”

My superior said nothing for a moment, and I half expected her to tell me to go to hell, but her eyes flickered up to Kristopher, then back to me. “…For a damned good reason,” she finally muttered.

I shook my head. “I didn’t ask why you’re not telling me. Though I want to know that, too. What are you withholding? Where were the other PWs tonight, really? Where did this ‘anonymous tip’ about the pirates come from? Why did the pirates kidnap Downing and Chorice, but not the half a dozen other people worth nearly as much?” I took a breath. “And why did not a Winter-damned thing that happened tonight come as a surprise to you?”

Hattie sighed and leaned forward, though her eyes did not quite meet mine. “I understand that you’re upset, Victor. I’m Serah’s friend, you should know; I care about her, too.” She waved her good hand. “But you’re seeing plots and schemes where there are none. We got an anonymous tip, that’s all. I don’t know where it came from. That’s what ‘anonymous’ means.”

Kristopher sang, but I didn’t need his burst of music to know she was lying. I said as much.

Hattie’s face turned hard. “We had this conversation already tonight, Victor. I allow some leeway in our relationship, but at a certain point you cross the line to insubordination, which is not acceptable. You’re exhausted and upset. Get up and walk out now, and I’ll forget this happened.”

I leaned back in the chair, the hard angles of the wooden back digging into my shoulders, helping keep me focused against the fog that threatened to overtake my mind. A glance at the clock showed it was still four hours until sunrise, and my body was screaming at me to take that time to sleep. I ignored it. I can be as stubborn as Hattie if I need to.

I rubbed my temples. “Hells, we can do this all night, Sergeant. I know you’re lying to me. Kristopher knows you’re lying to me. You know I know. What the bloody hell are you hiding that is more important than the lives of your mayor and a government minister?” She opened her mouth and I shook my head, forestalling her. “And enough of this insubordination business. You want to call a military tribunal, put me in jail? Fine. I’ll even sign an affidavit saying I insulted you to your face, kicked your puppy, whatever you want. But can we put aside the formality bullshit until Serah is back safe and sound?” I locked tired eyes with her. “Please?”

Hattie took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and let it out slowly. She leaned back in her seat and stared at me with hollow eyes. My words should have enraged her, yet she looked more weary than upset.

“Why have I not had you arrested yet, Haas?”

A tired chuckle escaped me. “My charming personality?”

She snorted. “We’ll have words about this later.” She leaned back and looked up at the shadow-crusted ceiling. “But I suppose maybe you have some right to know.”

* * * * * * * *

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