I read the telegram one last time before crumpling the paper into a ball and tossing it to the floor. My stomach clenched, and I leaned back in my chair and stared at my desk—or rather the papers showing the airship’s accounts, which I had spread across the surface. The math wouldn’t change no matter how many times I checked it. Too many expenses and too little income; that was the hard, uncaring truth.
Despite being the captain’s quarters, my room was as small and cramped as the rest of the ship. The Sultana had been built to fly fast and strike hard, not indulge passengers with luxury. High shelves stuffed with records, books, and maps encroached menacingly on my desk. They lined every wall except the one I’d had constructed to separate my office from my bedchambers. That one displayed ornamental sabers and some beautiful blue İznik pottery that had belonged to my mother (strapped very securely to the shelf). If all else failed, I supposed I could sell the pottery for some extra funds. Turkish ceramics would fetch a decent price here in France.
Two sharp knocks at the door announced Emin, and I told him to enter.
“I beg your pardon, Captain.” My first mate, Emin, was a giant of a man with a thick mustache on a face that fell naturally into a gloomy glower. He wore an old Ottoman military coat over baggy navy pants, and a red fez topped his head at an angle. His thick belts held a sword, two pistols, and a knife, but those were only his visible weapons. He stepped on the crumpled telegram and glanced down. “Bad news from Monsieur Courtemanche?”
“He thanks us for our offer but has decided to pursue services elsewhere.”
In the two weeks that I’d been searching for clients in Paris, Monsieur Courtemanche had been the only promising prospect. A rich art collector, he had some paintings that he needed moved quickly and discreetly to London. No doubt they’d been acquired through less than legal means, but that hardly bothered me. I’d negotiated for half the fee up front and had believed I was about to close the deal.
“Then I’m sorry to bring more troubles,” Emin said, “but a representative from the airship port wants to speak with you.”
About the docking fees, I was sure. Repressing a sigh, I rose and adjusted my veil and the skirts of my gown. “Lead the way.”
Emin and I traveled through the Sultana’s metal corridors, hatches, and ladders, an interconnected web I knew better than the workings of my own body. The passageways were narrow and bare, and exposed piping ran along the ceiling that would occasionally drip while in flight. Green-tinted lights glowed like fireflies on the walls, and the whole place had a scent of oil and metal that to me were the familiar comforts of home.
“How is the crew occupying themselves today?” I asked.
“Ahmet, Brocksby, and Holtzer are off drinking and quarreling. Moses is still taking in the sights, I believe. And Miss Rademacher is working in the engine room—she asked me to remind you we need new pistons.”
I nodded. She’d been reminding me for weeks, but we simply didn’t have the funds. “And Yusuf?”
Emin looked briefly away. “He mentioned something about improving our fortunes.”
A sour taste filled my mouth. That meant gambling, and if I had to rescue that old man from a losing streak once again, I was going to throw him in the brig. Yet at the same time, I knew it was my fault. Yusuf only gambled because he knew the poor state of our finances and wanted to help. If I were a better captain, he wouldn’t feel the need.
When Emin and I descended the ramp to the ground, the homey smell of the ship was replaced by dirt and manure. I’d docked the Sultana in the cheapest port I could find. Paris, center of European art and culture, with its elegant buildings, polished lampposts, and sycamore-lined boulevards, stood proudly in the far, far distance. The Saint Martin Airship Port was on the outskirts of the city, and truly, calling it a port was charitable. It was nothing more than an open field, its scraggly grass dead from being trampled beneath so many feet.
The airships here were a dilapidated hodgepodge and didn’t deserve the Sultana in their midst. True, my lady was faded, weather-stained, and had a few dents in her bronze hull, but she was a well-designed warrior, sleek and streamlined. Her rigid gasbag was armored, and strong cannons were positioned in clusters around her sides. Below her ram stood a figurehead, a fierce woman raising a sword defiantly into the air. She could fly circles around this riffraff.
The port official stood at the end of the ramp. He was a pale man in a frayed top hat, faded brown overcoat, and checkered trousers. His upper lip twitched as he looked me up and down. “Captain Melek?”
“Yes. How do you do?” I answered in French.
He’d doubtlessly expected someone with a different appearance. Tall and slim, I had an angular face and dusky complexion, and my dark hair fell in curls when I let it down. Currently it was pinned beneath my hat, and the gauzy white fabric of my veil covered my face below the eyes. I wore a dark cloak over a fine burgundy dress that was the latest Parisian fashion—or rather, it had been two years ago when I’d bought it. Almost all my dresses were burgundy, red, brown, or black. In my experience, those were the best colors for concealing bloodstains.
“Very well, thank you.” The official straightened his collar and wore an expression that said the opposite. “I’m here to discuss the docking fees for your ship.”
“Do you need tomorrow’s fee early?”
“No, I need you to pay through the end of the week.”
I stood perfectly still, hiding the flutter in my stomach. “I beg your pardon?”
He repeated himself slowly and loudly, as if speaking to an imbecile who was partially deaf.
“I understood your words, sir,” I said, trying to fight the steel that crept into my tone. “It’s your reasoning I can’t comprehend. I’ve been allowed to pay day by day until now. I hope to be gone before the week is over.”
“Nevertheless, there’s been a change in policy. All ships must now pay in weekly installments.”
“All ships?” I glanced at the airship besides us, a rickety livestock transporter. The crew had let a herd of goats roam loose about the field, where they munched on the dead grass and were responsible for the smell of manure. “Then I expect Captain Abel’s crew would confirm that if asked?”
The port official drew himself up, though he couldn’t top my height. “Your ship is renting space in our port. It’s our prerogative to charge you however we wish. I don’t know how things are done wherever you come from, but those are the rules of business here. Pay by the end of today, or I expect you gone by tomorrow morning.”
He sniffed and stalked away, muttering under his breath about foreigners. I briefly considered shooting him in the back before deciding I wasn’t quite that angry. Still, it was hard to turn and face Emin.
“We could always dock in the wilderness,” he suggested.
“Even farther away from potential clients,” I said with a sigh as I glanced in the direction of the city.
Emin made a deep, rumbling sound as he cleared his throat. “Captain, I have some personal savings that—”
“No.” I held up my hand to stop his words. “Thank you, Emin, but no. I’ll find another solution.”
I spent the rest of the morning going through advertisements in every newspaper Paris had to offer. It should not be this difficult to find employment. I had a fast ship and a skilled crew. One look at us should assure potential clients that they had nothing to fear from sky pirates. There’d been a time when the Sultana was one of the few airships brave enough to take certain routes in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and we’d had our choice of clients. Perhaps we were simply in the wrong location. Or perhaps, with no sign of Austria-Hungary’s terrible iron soldiers for over a year, people felt safer in the skies.
Memories of one of those deadly airborne automatons made me clench my fists, and I set down the newspaper when I realized I’d torn it.
“Captain! Captain Melek!”
Yusuf’s voice echoed in the metal halls, joined by the quick stomping of his feet. I folded my hands atop my desk and didn’t have time to tell him to enter before he burst through the door to my quarters.
“Captain! Wonderful news!”
Yusuf had a snow-white beard and turban upon his head. His ever-present smile had grown even wider than usual, and his face was flushed. He had a deceptively round belly that strained the sash around his waist, but make no mistake, that fat concealed sturdy muscle. The left sleeve of his coat had been torn off, revealing a prosthetic arm of bronze cylinders and gears that ended in a four-fingered claw. He’d had it for a little over a year, a souvenir of an attack that had slaughtered most of my original crew.
Only Yusuf, Emin, and Ahmet had survived that night, and dear Yusuf almost hadn’t made it. My heart ached when I thought of how close I’d been to losing the jolly old man. When I’d first found him lying in a puddle of his own blood, I’d thought he was gone. His arm hadn’t been completely severed, still attached to his shoulder by a few tendons and a bit of skin, and he— No, I didn’t have time to dwell on that now. Memories of the attack would have to wait for tonight to haunt me, as they always did in my dreams.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You won at cards.”
“No, I lost nearly everything, but listen. I ran into a gentleman on the way back to the ship. He says he has a job for us, and if his fancy clothes are anything to judge by, it’ll be good pay.”
I surged to my feet. “Where is he?”
Yusuf had left him outside the ship, but he’d come up the ramp and was looking around the cargo hold by the time we arrived. Normally, I’d have stern words and threats of violence for anyone who came onto my ship uninvited, but this was a potential—and desperately needed—client. Instead, I cringed at the stark emptiness of the cargo hold, but perhaps it would serve to display how much cargo we could transport.
Yusuf was right; the man was certainly well dressed. His black frock coat was of the finest quality, and his top hat gleamed in the light. The man himself was gray-haired and gaunt. He wore a solemn expression, and his walking stick’s silver handle was curiously shaped like the head of a wolf.
“Captain, this is Mr. Moreau. He’s— Well, I’ll let him explain. Mr. Moreau, may I present Captain Melek of the Sultana.”
“A pleasure,” Mr. Moreau said.
“Likewise, I—” The bleating of a goat interrupted me as one of the vexing creatures wandered up the ramp into the hold. I took a deep breath through my nose and fought to keep any other sign of annoyance from reaching my face. “Yusuf, if you please.”
“Right away, Captain.” He went to chase the goat out.
I dragged my focus away from the animal. This was my chance to improve our circumstances. “What can I do for you, Mr. Moreau?”
“I come on behalf of my employer, Mr. Aldric Lesauvage. He wishes to enlist your services in transporting a single passenger and some cargo. It needs to be quick and discreet, and you have excellent references.”
Interesting. I did indeed have excellent references, but few of them were in Paris. My lack of contacts here was one of the causes of our current troubles. Our last job had been a delivery to Paris, and once here, I’d found myself unable to procure employment and unwilling to waste what coal we had, flying to another location where we might have even worse luck. How, then, had this Mr. Lesauvage heard of me? It was an intriguing conundrum, but one I could solve later. Right now I had to focus on keeping my hands folded calmly in front of me instead of rubbing them together in eagerness.
“Quick and discreet are specialties of ours,” I said. “When and where does he need transport?”
“He’d prefer to discuss the details with you himself at your earliest convenience.”
I paused and pretended to consider my schedule. “I have no pressing concerns at the moment.”
“Very good.” Mr. Moreau ran his fingers along the wolf-shaped handle of his cane. “Mr. Lesauvage has a château in the Rhône-Alpes region and would be delighted to host you—”
“Rhône-Alpes? Mr. Moreau, that’s quite a journey.” I had assumed the man was in Paris. My mind calculated the time and provisions it would take to get there. If Mr. Lesauvage declined to hire me…
“Indeed, I came from there by train just yesterday.” Mr. Moreau twisted his gaunt face into a pleasant smile. “Mr. Lesauvage is aware of how valuable your time is and will pay you in advance for coming to speak with him.”
He pulled a purse from his coat and passed it to me, the clinking of coins evident even before I opened it. I was surprised by the weight—and even more surprised when I glimpsed the number of francs inside.
I snapped the purse closed and held it out to him, though he made no move to take it back.
“I cannot accept the job without knowing more details,” I said though the words were painful.
“Of course not. This payment is for your time in speaking with Mr. Lesauvage. If you refuse the job, it’s still yours.”
My eyebrows climbed toward my hat. That was a very considerate offer, nearly unheard of in this business. I studied Mr. Moreau, instantly suspicious. He looked every bit a gentleman, sunken cheeks and skeletal hands notwithstanding. I could think of no good reason to refuse, and my hand tightened around the purse.
“We’ll prepare to leave at once,” I said. “Would you like a cabin for the journey?”
“That would be most agreeable.”
I had Yusuf show him to one, and once the two of them were out of sight, I hiked up my skirts and ran like an excitable schoolgirl to get Emin. Finally, after weeks of stagnation, depression, and desperation, opportunity had finally come our way. Surely my suspicions were groundless, but they niggled at me anyway, weighing down my steps.
It all seemed too good to be true.