COMPANY OF THIEVES
A Steampunk Romance
Copyright © Katie MacAlister, 2020
All rights reserved
“Cap’n Pye! Cap’n Pye!”
“No, I’m Hallie.” I gave the teenage boy who burst into the navigation room a quelling look. Dooley had what I thought of as an alternate-world form of ADD, and could hardly stand still let alone focus on anything for longer than a few minutes. He was forever flitting around the airship like a deranged, but friendly, puppy. “You know this. I’ve been on the Enterprise for a year now. Even if you suffer from the same facial blindness that affects me—and I fervently pray you don’t, because it takes me years to recognize people, and then, I rely heavily on cues like hair or clothing—then surely you must still know who I am.”
Dooley bobbed a little bow, his freckled face flushed with excitement. As a fellow heavily freckled person who also blushed easily, he had my sympathy, but I wasn’t going to let that emotion keep me from putting the kid right. “Aye, I do know you, Miss Norris, but I thought it must be the captain making some sort of repairs to the autonavigator to make the ship go so badly awry.”
I squared my shoulders and gave him another stifling look. “We are not going badly awry. Awry implies off course, and according to this—” I pointed to the machinery that sat on a wooden desk. It was clockwork, like so much of this new world into which Jack and I had been dumped a year before, and contained lots of whirring gears, dials, and leather belts that constantly seemed to need adjusting.
“—according to this, we are perfectly on course.”
Dooley had the nerve to raise his eyebrows. I looked at the three rows of dials, and sighed. “Dammit, we were! I just set it! Where is this taking us—really, airship? To Spain? Oh, I don’t think so.” I recalculated the dials, spinning the disks that adjusted the settings until they matched the numbers I’d written down from Octavia’s map. “Blasted thing has a mind of its own, I swear. Did you want something in particular, Dooley?”
He bobbed another little bow. “No’m. You wouldn’t happen to know where the cap’n is? It’s just that Mr. Piper, he wants to know what she intends to do with the cargo that we liberated this morning.”
I watched the autonavigator closely for a minute, just in case it decided to reset the numbers I’d input into it, but this time they seemed to stick. “Hmm? Oh, she’s probably in her cabin with Jack having a quickie.”
“A what, now?”
I was about to answer when I remembered his age. Even in this world, I deemed him too young for such things. “They have a quick … er … conversation with each other. Privately.”
“Oh, aye,” the lad said, nodding, the confusion on his face clearing. “Without Mr. Francisco bothering the captain, you mean.”
“Is the Lothario of the skies back with us?” I gathered up my notes, and left the small navigation room to stroll down the metal gangway running the length of the topmost of three decks that made up the gondola. A slight wind ruffled my hair, the faint but persistent rush of air that skimmed the airship an ever present reminder of just how different this world was from the one in which Jack and I had lived. “I thought he was in Spain visiting family?”
“He was, but we picked him up when we liberated the emperor’s supplies at Annaba.”
I made a rude face. “Oh, great. Now we’ll have him stomping around being a drama queen and making risqué comments about Octavia’s hair.”
Dooley flitted ahead of me, the walkway vibrating with not just the thrum of the boilers but also his footsteps. I took secret delight in the click of footsteps along the metal walkways, even though looking down through the struts and beams made me a bit dizzy. “I’ll tell Mr. Ho that the Enterprise isn’t about to crash, as she thought.”
“Yeah, well, you can also tell her that I’m just pinch-hitting with that damned autonavigator, and the sooner that Mr. Christian gets back from his holidays, the better I’ll like … oh, hell. He’s gone.” I stood in the middle of the empty walkway and slapped my hands on my legs, feeling more than a little adrift.
I’d been that way for a year, and dammit, it was time that changed.
With a muttered curse to myself, I spun around and marched to the other end of the walkway, taking a right turn at an intersection, and climbing down a spiral staircase until I came to the crew quarters. I tapped on the door that bore a brass sign indicating it was the captain’s quarters. “You guys decent in there?”
Muffled voices exclaiming in surprise could be heard in response, along with a couple of thumps, and what sounded like a chair being hurriedly pushed back.
“Yes, it’s me. Come on, you guys, it’s not even noon. You can’t possibly be doing it again. Not after going at it all last night.”
The door opened to show Jack buttoning his shirt, his mismatched eyes narrowed on me, his hair tousled as if someone had just run her hands through it. Behind him, I could see Octavia hurriedly pulling on a white lacy blouse. “We are newlyweds. Thus, if we choose to engage in connubial acts all night, with a few additional midday reminders of just how happy the wedded state has made us, that is no one’s business but our own.”
“You were married ten months ago. At some point, the honeymoon phase has to end.” Since they were both mostly decent, I pushed past Jack and went into their cabin to plop down in a blue upholstered armchair that sat in front of a desk bolted to the floor. “And it’s my business when you keep me awake all night with thumps, giggles, and assorted cries of sexual ecstasy.”
Octavia, who was pulling on her boots, cast me a horrified glance, which she almost immediately turned onto Jack. “You heard us? Blast it, Jack, I told you that the leather cuffs were going too far. Now your sister heard you making me … making me say …” She stopped, a faint color lighting her cheeks.
Jack grinned at her, slipping on the black wool jacket that was part of the crew uniform Octavia and he had devised. The silver compass embossed on the jacket over the word ENTERPRISE glinted in the sunlight that streamed through the porthole. “Ignore her, Tavy. She’s just jealous because I found a fabulously sexy airship pirate captain, and she’s still looking for Mr. Right.”
I made a face. “I couldn’t care less about having a man. I had one, divorced him, and was happier for it. Until …” I bit off the words, having promised myself almost a year ago to the day that I was going to stop whining about what had happened. What was done was done, and I needed to move past being torn out of my reality and put down in this one.
Jack’s grin faded as he and Octavia exchanged glances.
“I’m sorry,” I said before either one of them could express sympathy. I slumped down with my elbows resting on my knees, my hands over my face. “I didn’t come here to snivel.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. But do tell us what it was that has you so distressed that you would disturb
our … er … quality time together?” Octavia’s words were spoken with her usual crisp British delivery, but there was real warmth behind the words that did much to take the sting out of them.
“I want something to do.” I let my hands drop and pinned them both back with a look that should have curled their respective hair. “I need something to do. Back in our old world, I was a champion fund-raiser. I volunteered at three different animal shelters, a woman’s shelter, and a memory care facility filled with former biker chicks who are hair-raising even in their declining years. Jack will tell you that our parents raised us to devote our lives to others.”
Octavia looked a question at him. He nodded. “She’s right. The folks were very big on giving back to the community, and Hallie took that to heart.”
“That’s why I’m going crazy just wandering around the ship being a glorified gopher.”
“A gopher?” Octavia glanced again at Jack.
“It’s someone who does a variety of menial tasks,” he explained, then knelt next to me, his hands on my knees. “I’m sorry you’re feeling out of sorts, Hal, but you are doing important work with the autonavigator.”
“Temporarily. Until Mr. Christian gets back, and even then, Mr. Mowen could do the job ten times easier than me. He’s just letting me do it because I begged him. What will I do when Mr. Christian gets back, and there’s not even a pretense of a reason to have me doing that job?” I looked into his eyes, but found no answer there.
“There are lots of things you can do around the ship,” he said slowly.
“Oh? Such as?”
“Well … Tavy must have tasks you could help with. …”
Octavia made a frustrated gesture, and sat on the edge of the big bed that dominated the cabin. “I wish I did, but the crew is so efficient … and you do everything else that’s complicated, Jack. … Hallie, you know the crew are happy to have you train on any or all of their jobs—”
“But they don’t really need me to be their backup,” I interrupted, having heard this explanation all too often in the last few months. “Other than Mr. Francisco, Mr. Christian is the only one who’s chosen to take a vacation in the whole year we’ve been sailing around being thieves.”
“Pirates,” Jack and Octavia said at the same time, then sent each other adoring looks.
“If you name your organization Company of Thieves, then you have to suck up being called a thief,” I said grumpily, then immediately felt ashamed. “I’m sorry, that was rude.”
“I thought you liked the name,” Jack said, looking mildly offended.
“I do. I like what you guys stand for. I like that we’re basically three airships full of Robin Hoods helping people who need it, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy having no part in that do-gooding. I need a cause, Jack, something I can sink my teeth in. You and Octavia are always so busy, what with planning where we’re going to raid next, and delivering the supplies, and picking up gossip about whose ships are where, but I don’t have anything to do.”
“What is it you want to do?” Octavia asked, her brown eyes serious.
“Well …” I gnawed on my lower lip for a few seconds. “I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t have the mechanical wherewithal to help Mr. Mowen with the machinery. Besides, that’s kind of Jack’s forte.”
“I do have a nanoelectrical engineering degree,” he agreed.
“And I’m not into cooking, so steward is out.”
“Do you enjoy the navigating?” Octavia asked, hopeful.
“Not really. The machine hates me. So that leaves just one thing,” I said, giving them both a nod.
“Bosun’s mate?” Jack smoothed down his hair. “I think Dooley would have a thing or two to say about that.”
“No, silly. I’ll be the ship’s fighter.”
They both stared at me like they’d never seen me before.
I was quite pleased to explain my reasoning to them. “See, it makes perfect sense. You can train me how to use the plasma gun, Octavia, and Jack can teach me all the martial arts stuff he learned when he was doing secret stuff in the army, and someone else can teach me how to use a sword, and bingo! I’ll be the fighting expert, and the next time we run into those Black Hand revolutionary guys, I’ll beat the stuffing out of them. I’ll be the group meat shield.”
“The group what?” Octavia looked confused.
“Sorry, it’s a gaming term. It means warrior. Jack and I used to play video games together, and he was always the warrior, but it’s my turn … er …” I stopped at her look of obvious incomprehension.
Octavia pursed her lips and turned to Jack.
“It was after your time, sweetheart,” he told her. “They were games we used to play on a device like the autonavigator.”
“Only it was fun, and not a pain in the ass, which is more than I can say about the navigator,” I added.
“I can’t imagine what game you could play on the autonavigator,” Octavia said, slowly shaking her head. “But I’ll move past that. You wish to be a warrior? But, Hallie …” Her voice trailed away.
“You don’t know how to fight,” Jack pointed out for her.
I smiled, happy to explain it as many times as was needed. “I know! That’s the beauty of it! I’ll learn how from everyone on board, because each person here has some fighting ability in which they excel, and once they teach me, then I’ll be the expert.”
“I don’t think it quite works that way,” Octavia said with hesitation.
“Not if you’re going to have a negative attitude about it, no.” I narrowed my eyes on them. “That was a very pointed look you guys just gave each other. What’s going on? Is something happening that you’re hiding from me?”
“It’s not that we’re hiding anything,” Octavia said reluctantly. “We just don’t want you to be …”
“Vulnerable,” Jack finished for her. “Hurt. Smeared into the ground.”
“OK, now I really do feel insulted.” I got to my feet, waiting until Jack did likewise before socking him gently on the arm. “I could be just as good a fighter as anyone else.”
“Hal,” Jack said on a chiding note. “You’ve never so much as taken a self-defense class.”
“So? You never sailed an airship before last year, and here you are Octavia’s first mate.”
“That’s beside the point,” Jack said airily.
“We are strangers in a strange land, Jack!” I said, suddenly at my wits’ end to make him understand just how I felt. “This world is so different from ours, and yet, the people in it are basically the same. They need help against oppression. They need saving from dire situations. They need guidance and wisdom and assistance.”
“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Jack protested. “We’re trying to provide all those things.”
“You are,” I said, pointing first at him, then at Octavia. “And she is. As is the entire crew. But not me. I have no part in it.”
Jack said nothing, but frowned as if he was going to protest.
I continued before he could do so. “What you’re doing is no different than the volunteering you did back home. And yet I’m not given the chance to do the same thing.”
“Do you wish to volunteer at an animal refuge?” Octavia asked, wrinkling her brow. “I know of one in England for donkeys, but other than that …”
“It’s not just animals. I’d be happy to do that if there were charities I could work for. But there’s nothing that I’ve seen. Have you?”
Both of them shook their heads. “Other than the donkey refuge, no, I can’t think of a charitable organization that would welcome you,” Octavia admitted.
I crossed my arms. “And that’s why I’m going to have to carve my own path. That path will be the ship fighter. I will protect you guys as you steal things and distribute it to the poor folks who need it.”
They exchanged yet another telling glance, and in a moment of insight, I knew Octavia was going to side with Jack against me. Drat them both.
“If you had some experience,” Jack started to say, but I could tell the rest of his sentence would be a denial.
But I hadn’t fought back from the biggest threat to my life just to give up when the going got rough.
“Fine,” I said, looking at them both down my nose. “You want me to get experience? I will get experience. If you won’t teach me how to be a kick-ass airship warrior, then I’ll find someone who will. Who’s the baddest ass in town?”
Octavia sighed. “Really, Hallie, your language. I realize that where you come from, bandying the word ‘ass’ about hither and yon is a common occurrence, but I can assure you that here polite people do not mention such words in mixed company.”
“Etienne?” I asked, thinking of the Black Hand leader, whom we’d seen briefly in France half a year before. “He didn’t seem to be doing much fighting. He just stood back and yelled at his people to shoot at us.”
“No, of course Etienne isn’t a fighter. He’s a strategist.” Octavia’s fingers fretted with the fabric of her skirt.
“Then who is our biggest threat?”
“Prince Akbar,” Jack said, his fingers twitching a little like he wanted to throttle someone. “That bastard son of a—”
“Jack!” Octavia protested.
“He is the bane of our existence, so I reserve the right to call him foul names. If I could just get him in a small, soundproofed room for about five minutes … just him, me, and a pair of electric nipple
Octavia took a martyred breath.
“Akbar? Who … oh, the Moghul guy?” I thought about what I knew of the prince. I had a vague memory of Jack telling me how he’d fought him after we had just arrived in this alternate reality, but beyond that, and the fact that he was supposedly some hotshot warlord, I knew nothing. “Do you know where he is?”
“You can’t be thinking what I think you’re thinking,” Jack said, shaking his head.
“What is she thinking?” Octavia asked, clearly confused.
“Sure, I can. If you guys won’t teach me, then I’ll just have to go to an expert.” I gave Jack a long, level look, expecting that he would capitulate and order the crew to teach me their weaponry skills. Seeing as how the Moghuls had such a bad reputation, I knew Jack would rather give in than have me carry through my threat to go to the enemy. “Then, when I’ve learned what I need to know to be a warrior, I’ll come back and protect you guys.”
“Oh, lord,” Octavia said, and, shaking her head, excused herself, pausing at the door to raise her eyebrows at Jack.
“Now look what you’ve gone and done,” he said after she closed the door behind her. “You made us miss our midmorning quickie, and Octavia will be frustrated until our early-afternoon quickie time.
Hal—” He took my arms in his hands. “I know you feel out of place here, but I promise you that you’ll find your feet. You just have to give it time.”
I hesitated for a few seconds. “Is it that you don’t think I have the heart for fighting?”
His eyes were warm with affection. “I know better than anyone just how strong you are, Hallie. You are a warrior in every sense of the word … except one.”
I made a face. “We’re back to experience again. Well, I’m trying to fix that. I want to be a fighter. I hate being told to go sit in my cabin whenever you guys steal stuff, or fight off those Black Hand people when they try to take our ill-gotten gains.”
“We just want you to be safe,” he started to say.
I punched him lightly in the chest. “Exactly! And that’s why teaching me to fight is such a good idea. Then not only will I be a kick-booty steampunk chick, but you won’t have to worry about protecting me anymore.”
“I will always worry about protecting you,” he said with a quick hug, rubbing my back just like he used to do when I was little and scared by one of the horror movies he watched. “I want you to feel useful. I know how important that is to you. But this is not the way. We’ll find something—you just have to be patient.”
“I’m tired of being patient,” I told him when he collected a couple of maps from the desk. “Where … uh … do you happen to know where Prince Akbar is?”
He rolled his eyes, and was about to leave when he stopped himself. “I do know, as a matter of fact. Or at least, I know the latest intelligence that was given to us at Annaba, and no, I’m not going to tell you.”
My gaze slid past him for a second to where his journal lay.
“You rat fink!” I yelled, storming my way to the door, praying he wouldn’t see through my sham anger. Luckily, he was a man, and thus no match for a woman. He simply followed me out and paused when I flung open the door to my cabin.
“Hal, even if Tavy and I thought it was wise for you to pick up training from someone so ruthless and violent, the brute Akbar would likely hold you for a ransom should you show up to demand he train you. That or make you part of his harem.”
“Bah,” I said dismissively, wishing he’d just leave. “If he’s a man, he can be manipulated.”
“I would be worried if I knew you weren’t just expressing your discontent in the only way you know how,” Jack said, giving me a quick grin before heading off.
“Shows how much you know me,” I muttered, and after a couple of minutes to make sure he’d gone after Octavia, I slipped back into their cabin and read the notes he’d made from the stop at Annaba. Unfortunately, there was no concrete mention of just where Akbar was rumored to be other than a vague “southern part of Tunisia” hint.
Ten minutes later I sat on the edge of my bunk and took a good, long look at Jack’s statement that when I found Akbar, he might not be willing to teach me, and decided that I had a way around that. “The only thing standing in my way,” I said to myself when I pulled out a small chest and rifled through my sparse belongings until I found a silk envelope, “is fear. And really, the only things I’m afraid of are horses and asphyxiation, and how likely is it that I’ll encounter either of those on Prince Akbar’s airship?”
It wasn’t until an hour later that I managed to track down the one person who had the information I needed.
“The captain won’t like it if I was to pass along privileged information,” Mr. Mowen said, tapping on the side of one of the boilers and listening to the echo to judge how full it was.
“I’m her sister-in-law,” I reminded him. “I would never do anything that would harm either Jack or Octavia, or, for that matter, anyone on this ship.”
“Well,” he said, hesitating at a couple of gauges. He frowned at one, and gave it a quarter turn. “I suppose that is the truth. We’re scheduled to drop supplies at three locations in Tunisia.”
“Right. At Kasserine, Mahdia, and Sousse,” I said, naming the towns that were mentioned in Jack’s journal.
Mr. Mowen nodded.
“But those towns are in the middle and north parts of Tunisia.” I stood waiting, giving him my best “eyes filled with hope” expression.
“Aye, they are. It’s said that the Moghul prince has a camp to the south, around the town of Tozeur, where he makes periodic strikes upon those Black Hand scum.”
“Tozeur,” I said thoughtfully. From what I remembered of the map I’d studied, that wasn’t very far from our first stop. “Thank you, Mr. Mowen.”
“You’re welcome, lass, although I hope you’re not planning on doing anything that would upset the captain.”
“Of course not,” I told him, mentally planning the notes to Jack and Octavia, apologizing for any concern I might cause them, and one further note to the prince, informing him that I had a proposition that he would be sure to find mutually agreeable. “I wouldn’t dream of doing anything that would cause problems.”
“I’m sure that is the furthest thing from your mind.”
I glanced at Mr. Mowen, but despite his voice being full of amusement, his face was impassive.
The next twelve hours were spent sorting through my things, packing a small bag with essentials, and fighting with the damned autonavigator.
By the time we landed at Kasserine, I was ready. I left a note to Mr. Mowen asking him to please take over the autonavigator duties, and another addressed to Jack and Octavia, which I placed on my bunk while the crew was unloading cargo. After making sure the coast was clear, I slipped out of an escape hatch on the far end of the airship with my bag in hand. No one saw me leave, and given that I’d told everyone earlier that I had a headache and was going to try to sleep it off, I doubted if my absence would be discovered before morning.
“By then,” I said from where I squatted behind a couple of large wooden crates filled with salted beef, “I should be making a deal with the prince.”
When the Enterprise rose in the air and gently chugged off to the northeast, I felt a moment’s qualm at my audacious plan. My last tie to the world in which I’d grown up was sailing off into the distance with his beloved, but after a few minutes of panicked fear, I managed to remind myself I’d been through much scarier things in my life. This was the right course to take.
“After all,” I told myself four hours later, when I sat on a transport airship heading from Kasserine to points south, “I’ve been dragged to this world without my consent, and now I’m stuck here with no way to get back home. I refuse to live a life of uselessness. I refuse to forever be a stranger who is always on the outside looking in. No, sir! This is take-charge Hallie, and take-charge Hallie says we fulfill our destiny, and all that crap.”
The woman sitting opposite me, who had appeared more than a little scandalized when I sat down on the red brocade cushioned bench across from her, now looked like she might just fall over into a faint.
“You should probably loosen your corset,” I told her, taking in her highly starched white blouse, the long navy blue cotton skirt with fanciful embroidered scroll, her bright red belt, and a little straw boater that sat on top of an elaborate coiffure. She looked so much the epitome of a late Victorian-era lady that I knew I shocked her by speaking in public of such things as corsets. “It’s just a foundation garment,” I told her. “It’s not like it’s a sexual aid or something that is in bad taste to mention in mixed company. Far be it from me to judge what’s right and wrong with your society, but at the same time, I begin to think that maybe a social revolution is in order. If I was to suggest you abandon your corset and free your ta-tas, what would you say?”
She weaved, a handkerchief held to her mouth, and I worried she really might faint. Luckily, at that moment two other ladies entered the cabin, which had been set aside for women and children, and their unexceptional chatter seemed to reassure my seatmate that she was safe from my heathen corset-less ways.
I spent the bulk of the flight making mental lists of things I wanted to learn. Swordplay was a must, since a lot of the people in this world used swords rather than those weird plasma-shooting guns they called Empyrean Disruptors. Naturally, I’d have to learn how to shoot those, too. “But I rather fancy myself a bit of a swashbuckler,” I told the starchy woman when our companions took themselves off to the observation deck for a few minutes. “There’s nothing more kick-as—er … kick-bustle than being able to slash around with a sword, you know? Or oooh, maybe a pair of daggers. If Jack would teach me his stealthy black ops skills, I could sneak up behind people and wham! Bam! Stab, stab, stab! I’d be a dagger-assassin rogue rather than a warrior!”
The woman gurgled something, and toppled over on the bench seat, clutching a lace hankie to her face.
“I don’t know—she just seemed to have some sort of an attack,” I told the two ladies when they returned and asked me what happened to the other woman. I added an innocent smile for good measure.
The starchy lady squeaked, and allowed herself to be helped from the row of seats with vague little gestures toward me.
No one sat by me for the rest of the trip.
The airship steward told me that Tozeur was an oasis town, located on the edge of the Sahara desert, part of the caravan route that Berbers and Bedouins used when traveling north to the sea. The town itself was surrounded by thick date trees, a line of which also clustered around a pool of greenish-blue water fed by a waterfall that poured out of a curved wall of rock edging one side of the pool. Beyond, a few more date trees were dotted through sparse scrubland, the vegetation thinning with distance from the oasis until there was nothing but small, knee-high dusty, hardy shrubs. The land rolled in soft waves to the south into the Sahara, from whose distances periodic trains of camels and merchants emerged on their way north to the coast cities.
I disembarked (much, I suspect, to the relief of the inhabitants of the ladies’ cabin) to find facing a small inn, a few scattered mud buildings, and not a lot else.
“The word ‘inn’ is a bit of a gross overestimation of the word,” I said aloud when I hoisted my bag and entered the curtained doorway. Inside, three round tables dotted an earth floor, each table hosting four silent men bearing huge mustaches, all of whom sat nursing drinks. At one table, clearly inhabited by a livelier bunch, the men played a game of dice, their movements slow and studied as they tossed the dice, peered at the results, then took a long pull at their respective drinks before a few coins were exchanged.
For a moment, all eyes were on me, and although I’m not an exhibitionist by nature—or even terribly extroverted—I reveled in the sensation that I was on a grand adventure. For the first time in the year I’d spent in this world, I felt fully alive, possessed with a mission, a plan, a goal toward which I was actively working. It was as if I’d woken up after a yearlong sleep, full of energy and enthusiasm, and I embraced the experience even though a few of the men made scandalized faces at my corset-less silk tunic and lounging pants that was my favorite outfit.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted a laconic man who oozed his way over to me, his hair slicked forward in an obvious attempt to cover a balding top. “I should like some information, if you please. I understand that Prince Akbar is located near this town?”
The low murmur of voices and occasional clink of dice came to a sudden halt as thirteen pairs of eyes considered me.
“Madame?” the innkeeper asked in a French accent. He looked like he had turned into a human-sized version of the stuffed big-mouth bass that hung in my father’s study.
“Akbar. The Moghul dude. He’s supposed to be in this area.” I glanced around the inn, wondering if I’d said something untoward. “Did he leave? I hope not, because I spent a lot of money getting out to Tozeur, and I have to save the rest of what my brother gave me.”
The innkeeper swallowed a couple of times, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his scrawny neck before he answered, “Madame is … connected … with the prince?”
“Nope,” I said, giving everyone in the room a friendly smile. They all looked like they had been turned to stone. “But that’s not really a problem, because evidently he held my brother and sister-in-law prisoner for a bit, so we are kind of acquainted-by-kidnap, if you will. Is he here? In town?”
The innkeeper looked a bit dazed, but wasn’t forthcoming with any information.
“Anyone?” I asked, looking at the motley gang.
No one said a word.
I sighed and reached under my tunic to pull out the little bag that hung around my neck. Octavia said it was called a Lady’s Protector, but it looked like the sort of passport neck pouch I’d worn the year I went to Europe. I pulled out the collection of bills. “Right, let’s see if this helps your memory.”
The innkeeper seemed to come to life at the sight of the money. His gaze shot past me to the door for a moment; then he pursed his lips and let his gaze drop to the money in my hand. “There is a gentleman in the area who might fit the description of Prince Akbar, but Madame is not recommended to visit his camp.”
“Oh? Why not?”
He looked almost as scandalized as the starched woman on the airship. “It is not fitting for a lady such as Madame to visit the prince in his domicile.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why, but I had an idea of just what was giving him so much grief. “Only ladies of ill repute visit him, eh?”
The innkeeper blinked, and murmured something about it not being a fitting subject to discuss with me.
“Right, well, I’m not a sex worker, not that I think anything is wrong with that, because women should feel completely comfortable taking ownership of their bodies and their lives, and if that’s what they want to do, well then, who am I to rain on their parades? So to speak. Regardless of all that, I really do need to see the prince. If you could just be so kind as to point me in his direction, I would be happy to make a little donation to your inn.”
He licked his lips when I plucked out a second bill and, holding it between two fingers, waved it in the air. “It is too dangerous, madame. I could not live with myself knowing I had led you to one who is most ruthless, most feared.”
“He sounds just perfect for my needs.” I added a third bill. That did the trick. He eased the bills out of my hand, saying, “To the south, the road that leads past the oasis goes to a small rise above a wadi, about a mile from town. There is a camp, and it is said the monseigneur who leads many men has a great airship the color of the darkest night.”
“That sounds like Akbar to me. Is that the south road?”
He moved the finger I was pointing about fifteen degrees. “Bonne chance, madame.”
“And to you,” I repeated, and, with a little wave at the still silent and unmoving men in the inn, stepped out with a barely contained sense of excitement. I glanced at the sun, which looked likely to sink in a few hours behind the Atlas mountains that clung to the horizon, squared my shoulders, and started my trek.
“You’d just better not give me any grief, Akbar,” I said to myself while I marched along the dirt road. “Because I’m through being patient. This is my time to grab life by the balls, and I mean to do it!”