Tales of the Captain Duke #1
By Rebecca Diem (© 2014)
Chapter 1: In which our heroine finds herself in an unlikely predicament
It had been quite easy to sneak onto the airship. Easier still to carve out a hiding place between the stacks of crates and the wall. Clara had a rather comfortable berth under the circumstances. The sacks of grain piled here and there in the cargo hold were more than adequate for her journey to London, though she very much hoped it would be a short one. She spent her time considering various plans for her arrival and snacking on the food she had hurriedly packed: a few early apples, a chunk of yellow cheese, two soft buns, and a small cake with summer berries. The apple made a pleasant crunch as she bit into it, staring through a porthole at the passing landscape below. The airborne vessel drifted over the English countryside as she considered her options.
Clara estimated the trip to be no longer than a half day’s journey, or so she judged by the speed with which they crossed to the mainland from the airship docks on the Isle of Wight. She hoped she could eventually make a run for it and get lost in the midday bustle of the London docks, but first she needed to return to solid ground. Her brother Archie’s glider might have been useful to this purpose, but once he saw her safely below deck he’d had to be off or risk discovery himself. The glider was far too cumbersome to be hidden, and it would likely be of little use to her once she made it to London. She would have to find some other method of escape. Her best bet to avoid discovery was to conceal herself in one of these crates.
Clara sighed and stood, brushing the dust from her dress. Resolving to find more appropriate attire upon her arrival, she went to examine the nearest crate.
The cover was firmly in place. She looked around the hold for something useful and discovered a crowbar resting by the steps. She was quite pleased with her progress. It would be a simple matter of replacing one of the grain sacks with herself when the time came to unload the ship. She crossed the room to retrieve the tool, gathering the excess material of her skirts at her hip as she climbed out from her hiding place. Crates were stacked three deep around a large open area in the center of the hold. She retrieved the iron bar and placed the slimmer end into the edge of a large crate marked “GRAINS AND ASST. GOODS.” Clara pulled with all her strength, bracing her low-heeled boot against a neighbouring case. The crack that followed was louder than she anticipated, but she was certain that the noise of the propellers and engine would mask it. What she had not expected were the contents of the crate.
Clara had just begun to ponder this new problem as she recovered from the shock, when footsteps coming down the stairs sent her scrambling to hide as silently as she could. She clutched the crowbar tightly as her veins filled with ice.
“I swear, I heard something,” the first voice called out. The sound of three pairs of heavy boots carried through the hold.
“Maybe one of the boxes fell?” suggested a more timid voice.
“If it did it’ll be you taking a flight over the rail, boy. The Captain said it was to be handled with care. With care! Heard of it?” a loud voice boomed, and the sound of a brief scuffle followed. Behind the crates, Clara held her breath, straining to make sense of their movements and position through sound alone. She had a sinking feeling that this was no simple merchant’s ship, and the barely restrained violence of the loud man’s voice did not lend itself to a diplomatic resolution if she were caught.
“Leave him be, Johnny, the kid is alright. Nothing seems out of place,” the first voice spoke again.
“Well check and be sure, I won’t have the Captain taking his displeasure out of our pay, or I’ll take my share out of the boy.”
Clara stole a quiet breath of relief when the loud man’s boots retreated toward the stairwell. She could hear the other two moving about the hold, and hoped that her own thudding heartbeat would not betray her position. She quickly thought through her options: Could she bribe them? Should she fight? Could she run? She made herself as small as possible and waited, every instinct on high alert. The lighter pair of footsteps was getting closer.
A shuffle. A step. He must be less than four feet from her, only the crate she huddled against blocking her from his view. When his voice called out the blood froze in Clara’s veins.
“Hey, look over here!”
“What do you got?”
“It’s… an apple core, I think.”
Damn! She cursed herself for not paying better attention to her waste. To come all this way and fail for leaving an apple core on top of the stacks, she might as well have posted a sign.
“You been snacking on the job?”
“No, I swear. It’s not mine.”
“Mine neither. Take a look around the stacks over there. Maybe there’s more.”
This was it. She would be discovered and arrested, maybe killed, or worse, taken back to the Isle in shame. Clara was about to give herself up to their mercy, when shouts came from the decks above.
“What’s that?” the first speaker called out.
A series of heavy thuds answered him.
“Hell, it’s Johnny! Quick!”
Seconds later, the footsteps pounded up the stairs. The commotion above increased in volume, shouts and bangs and crashes. Was it a mutiny? Were they under attack? Clara huddled by her crate, her knees protesting the prolonged stillness, every sense extended to try to determine the nature of the noises above, until her curiosity overwhelmed her and she finally rose to risk a peek toward the stairs.
A body lay awkwardly across the bottom steps. He was the loud man, she presumed. And by the amount of blood pooling beneath his chest, he was also very, very dead.
The noise above was becoming more frantic, and as time passed with no resolution to her present troubles, Clara was feeling quite anxious herself. Stuck in a cargo hold with grain that was gunpowder and a dead body to boot. She was at a complete loss. Nothing in her life had prepared her for an airship battle over the English countryside. A bubble of hysterical laughter escaped as she wondered what her etiquette instructor might say. Likely something about grace under pressure and that one’s resolve could be seen in one’s spine, but also that ladies would not find themselves in such a mess to begin with. She caught herself questioning her decision to leave the island for the first time since she had determined it to be the best course of action. She was completely out of her element. How could she ever have thought that her venture would be successful? She worried that she was a fool. Was this the end of her journey? Lost in an airship battle before she truly lived? Clara forced herself to take deep breaths to calm her racing heart. No, she thought. This was her choice and she would find a way through. She would do whatever necessary.
She unconsciously straightened her posture as she waited for some sign of the situation above. More information was needed before she could logically proceed. She would act when she had a better understanding of her circumstances. Until then, she would hide and wait.
The frenzy above gave way to a cacophony of whoops and hollers. Someone was cheering, but was the airship won or lost? The shouts were closer now but still too indistinct to interpret. A door banged open and someone crashed down the stairs, swearing an oath as he tripped over the dead man and scrambled further into the hold.
This is it, she thought.
Two more sets of footsteps came down, slow and precise, but all the more intimidating for their measured pace.
“A captain in the cargo hold. You must be in a hurry to die. No true captain would abandon his pilots to carry on while hiding with the goods,” a voice called. The voice was pleasant, aside from the underlying threat of imminent injury.
“You’ll not be taking my ship today.”
“You’re sure about that?” called a woman’s voice. “It looks as though I’ve got your sword right here. Pistols too. I’d say you’re a little outmatched.”
Clara peeked between the crates and caught a sliver of the standoff. White blouse, breeches, a tall boot, but she could not see the speaker.
“Shoot me then. I will not see my ship surrendered to pirates! The Tradists are closing in on your little operation, oh yes. Your misdeeds will catch up to you sooner than you think, be assured of that!”
“Well, Trick? Can I shoot him?”
“If you must. A coward’s death for a coward captain.”
Clara heard the pistol click into place, and realized the captain’s plan. Throwing all caution to the winds, she scrambled to climb above the crates and yelled: “STOP!”
“By Victoria, there’s a lady on board!” the woman swore, still aiming at the captain. The scene was frozen as each dealt with his or her respective shock. The man called Trick broke the silence.
“And what might your objection be? If you’re feeling a bit delicate we can escort you above decks while we finish down here.”
Clara found her voice, “No, not at all. Pardon me, but it’s the gunpowder.”
“The crates behind him, they are filled with gunpowder, not grain. The hold is full of it. If you shoot him, you may blow the entire airship,” she explained, as patiently as she could.
The woman narrowed her eyes while the man let out a deep belly laugh before whistling for others who quickly joined them in the hold.
“Well and you almost had us there, take him up and tie him well,” he ordered, before turning back to her.
The captain was subdued, and escorted up the stairs, grumbling and spitting all the way. The man and woman stayed below, staring up at the girl in the stacks.
“Now my dear, what to do with you?”
Clara stared back at them, balancing on the crates. Their weapons were holstered now, but she did not hold illusions of her safety being secure under the current circumstances. The woman was tall, taller than the man beside her, though it was obvious that she deferred to his authority. Thick blonde hair was captured in a plait that hung past her waist. The man had a stocky build, with hair as dark as Clara’s own. His open expression seemed capable of turning fierce or friendly, as he chose. She did her best to calm her breathing, calculating escape plans and dismissing them just as quickly. She was dependent on their good will. Clara figured that saving their lives was a good start. An act of trust would need to follow.
She carefully picked her way over the crates with as much dignity as she could muster in voluminous skirts and an over-sized jacket with a crowbar concealed in the sleeve. The man crossed the floor quickly to offer a hand to help her down. She elegantly dusted off her skirts, though the action made little difference to their sorry state, and waited for them to address her. As the silence dragged on her courage began to waver, and she decided the first introduction was to be hers.
“Good morning sir, madam. My name is Clara.”
They kept staring.
Would they ever stop staring?
The man cleared his throat. “Well then Miss… Clara, I’ll be Patrick Kilarney, known to all as Trick. This here is Nessa.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Kilarney, Mistress Nessa.”
More silence. Nessa shifted her wide stance, a hand still resting on one of her holsters, “No offense, Miss, but I haven’t seen many pilots in evening wear and most guests don’t bunk in the cargo hold.”
Clara could understand the confusion. She had not had time to change out of her ball gown, and the skirts were rather worse for wear. Her brother’s coat was just a tad too large for her despite their similar, slender builds. She probably made quite the sight at the present moment.
“Well I can settle that for you, I’m a stowaway.”
Both Trick and Nessa’s eyebrows shot up. “A stowaway? Well,” he scratched his head. “I suppose we are at your service Miss Clara, for saving the ship and all.” His broad grin was at odds with the large sword at his side, but friendly all the same.
“Hold on, how do we know she’s being truthful about the gunpowder? She seems clever enough to make a story of it,” Nessa asked.
Clara raised a single brow at the challenge and allowed the crowbar to slide smoothly from her sleeve. Nessa took a quick step back and cocked a pistol at her. She gave the piratess her most gracious smile and went to the nearest crate, bracing herself to wedge it open. The front came off with a satisfying crack on her second attempt, revealing the barrels of gunpowder hidden within.
Trick grinned and pushed Nessa’s pistol down, walking over to Clara and extending a hand.
“My thanks again, Miss.”
“Yes, our thanks,” said Nessa, with some reluctance before turning back to Trick, “But what are we going to do with her? Drop her off in the countryside?”
Clara considered her options. It was unlikely that the captured ship was bound for London.
“Might I ask where the ship is going? My plans are… adaptable, shall we say.”
“Well we’re not at liberty to share that information, but you can take it up with the Captain. Have no fear, he’s an honourable man,” Trick said. He offered her an arm and began to escort her towards the steps.
“Honourable, but a pirate, I presume?” she asked, finally giving voice to the word.
“I prefer the term ‘liberator,’” a voice spoke from above.
Clara’s gaze shot up. A tall man, lit from behind as his silhouette filled the doorway, his features obscured by shadow. One hand rested casually on the hilt of a slim sword. He walked down the steps into the hold, only pausing to allow Nessa time to drag the corpse aside. As the light of the portholes caught his face, Clara did her best to remain composed. His hair was a fiery red, spilling over his shoulders in a manner that was almost obscene. His sternness was almost overcome by the hint of dimples at his cheeks, but there was a dangerous amusement in his eyes and mouth.
“Trick, I see you have found a debutante.”
“A stowaway, Captain.”
“A stowaway debutante? How curious.”
“She saved us all, sir, warned us about the gunpowder in the hold.”
“I see. What a happy concurrence,” he said, stepping closer to her. “We are in your debt Miss—”
“Clara. Just Clara,” she spoke at last. He reached for her hand and bent in a sweeping bow to kiss it.
Trick grinned, “Miss Clara, may I present to you, the Captain Duke.”
The Captain Duke!
Clara had heard of this man. His name was whispered in all the major ports, with more rumours of his exploits and motivations than one man ought to inspire in a lifetime. However, in Clara’s estimation, he couldn’t be more than thirty years of age. As the three escorted her to the deck above, she adjusted her appraisal. In the clear light of day he looked even younger.
Her attention was distracted by the activity on the decks. Pilots were sorting and counting the goods while others watched over the imprisoned crew and captain. The ship’s large oblong balloon towered over them, secured to the metal ship with heavy chain netting. A second airship was secured alongside the first, smaller and sleeker than the merchant vessel. This one had polished decks of light wood. Each tier of the deck was sculpted to break the high winds, rising as one moved astern with staircases curving up along each side. Large multi-paned windows lined the hull, and three smaller balloons held it aloft, tied together with rope and canvas. Propellers were spaced evenly along its sides, designed for swift navigation. Its delicate scrollwork made the utilitarian cargo ship seem ugly and corpulent by comparison.
The Captain Duke barked orders to his crew as they ran between the decks, transferring supplies with ingenious rope and pulley systems that Clara wished she had time to examine more closely. Instead, she hurried to keep up. He stopped in front of a bridge of knotted rope stretched between the two ships.
“Will you require assistance?”
Clara tore her eyes from the gap to meet the challenge in his eyes. She took a breath. If she was going to talk her way onto his ship she would need to prove she was capable. Steeling herself, she reached down to remove her boots. Passing them to the rather flustered Trick, she gathered her skirts and stepped out onto the bridge, steadying herself with the ropes stretched alongside. She was surprised to find it sturdier than many of the fence posts she had balanced on as a youth. The wind tore at the flaps of her jacket and the gauzy material of the dress, and the slightest glimpse from the edge of her sight of the land far below set her heart racing. Once again she cursed the circumstances that had prevented more suitable attire, but her feet were sure upon the ropes. She crossed the span between the ships with her head held high and jumped down to the other deck.
She braced herself against the wind as she waited for the Captain and Trick to finish crossing. The Captain acknowledged her with a nod and the barest tease of a grin, then immediately set about shouting orders to the crew. Trick clapped her on the back and handed her the boots.
“Thank you Mr. Kilarney, I wasn’t sure I could spare a hand for them while I crossed.”
“It was no problem at all. These are lovely boots for the land to be sure, but we’ll fit you with some good deck slippers soon enough. You did well, Miss Clara.”
“Just Clara, please.”
“Very well, Clara, if you’ll do me the honour of addressing me as Trick.” He folded himself into an elaborate bow. She reciprocated with a formal curtsy, sweeping her skirts back and bending so gracefully that her etiquette instructor would certainly have cried with joy.
“The honour is mine, Trick.”
He blushed. And blushed further still, upon discovering the Captain with arms crossed beside him.
“If the introductions are complete, Clara, Nessa, you will join me in my cabin. Trick, the ship is yours.”
He turned and stalked toward a door at the rear of the ship. She received an unnerving smile from Nessa that did nothing to set her at ease, and the two of them followed behind.
The cabin held both work and living quarters. The half presently occupied by the trio was dominated by a table covered with maps. A correspondence desk took over the far corner. The morning light streamed into the room from a wall of large windows, slanting over the papers on the table. A number of shelves were lined with books and rolls of what Clara presumed to be more maps, all held secure by intricate wooden lattice. To her right was a wall dividing the cabin, with curtains pulled back from an arch leading into a bedroom. She could just catch a sliver of rumpled sheets through the opening, but quickly turned her attention back to the man clearing papers from the table. He pulled up a chair and gestured for her to do the same. Nessa leaned against the wall, observing them. Clara sat straight and met the Captain’s gaze with what she hoped was a calm expression. Her composure was admittedly a bit rattled from the morning’s events, and she had not had much opportunity for sleep. However, she was determined to find some logical solution to her troubles once she discovered the intentions of this Captain Duke. The standoff was finally broken by the Captain leaning forward and brushing his hair back from his eyes.
“Well, Clara, you have certainly made this venture more… surprising.”
She was unsure how to respond so she waited in silence for him to continue.
“First, I must thank you. Your interference likely saved the lives of my crew, our cargo and myself as well.”
“It was a happy accident, sir. Your good fortune coincided with my own.”
Clara decided honesty was her best advantage. She sensed no ill from this Captain… yet.
“Well, you see, the gunpowder was interfering with my plan of escape.”
“Were you a captive then?”
“No, a stowaway, as Trick said. I boarded the airship with the assistance of my– a friend, and his glider. I thought I might hide in one of the crates, but the prohibited nature of the cargo was an unexpected obstacle.”
“I see. And what circumstances brought about your fortuitous presence?”
Now she hesitated, unsure of how much to reveal.
“Reluctance is understandable,” he continued. “Not many would turn stowaway without good reason. I only ask because your appearance would suggest a more unusual story than most.”
Clara refused to blush, but smoothed her skirts self-consciously.
“I was hoping to find more reasonable attire in London,” she offered.
“I have an extra pair of trousers that might fit her. They will do for now,” Nessa spoke up, still leaning against the wall. Clara turned to her with gratitude, breaking her composure. It was the first sign of the possibility for a good rapport with the piratess.
“Oh would you? Excellent! I can pay of course, but really it would be such a favour…” she trailed off. “That is – thank you. It would be greatly appreciated.”
Nessa smiled and with a nod from the Captain she went in search of the apparel. Clara’s feelings were mixed between her relief at the prospect of changing out of her vexatious gown and her acute awareness of being left alone with the Captain Duke. A patch of sunlight illuminated his shoulder. His hair was bright against his shirt, and Clara cursed herself for noticing. She stilled herself into calm silence once more. The Captain continued to observe her.
“Correct me please, but I assume that to be a dress of some quality.”
“Once, perhaps, but as you can see my adventures have spoiled it somewhat.”
He raised an eyebrow, waiting.
“I had to leave in a bit of a hurry, you see…”
He waited still. Clara sighed.
“Fine, what is it you wish to know.”
“Did you steal that jacket?”
“What? No, Archie gave it to me. I could hardly run away in naught but a ball gown.”
“Archie?” he asked.
She went silent, cursing herself for the slip.
“I can assure you that anything you reveal will be kept in the strictest confidence. I am only trying to ensure the safety of my crew from reprisal over your presence on my ship. Do you fear imminent discovery of your escape?”
“I… I left with the consent of my family. My brother, Archie, had the idea for the airship. I did not have much time to prepare. There is a possibility that someone may be searching, but they will look to Europe first.”
He considered this new information, leaning back in his chair.
“I realize my presence may be inconvenient, but my identity would perhaps be most secure aboard your vessel. I lack experience, but I could be of assistance to you and your crew.”
The Captain Duke raised his brows, “You want to be a piratess?”
“A liberator, I believe you said.”
He smiled then, showing a glimmer of white teeth.
“Yes, I did. What would compel a lady of your status to become a pilot?”
“What would compel a Duke to pilot a pirate ship?”
He laughed at that, and her stomach flipped at the boldness of her inquiry. This was a dangerous man, though it was difficult to remember that fact when he seemed so young and full of amusement. Her heart was pounding, but it was excitement, not fear, that drove her. This was an adventure she was compelled to chase. She was certain this airship was where she was meant to be. The moment was broken as Nessa returned with the promised clothing.
“Touché,” he answered. “What are you prepared to offer in exchange to join my crew?”
Clara stood, taking courage from Nessa’s renewed presence. She drew back her brother’s coat and fiddled with the ties that bound the satchels beneath her skirts. The fullness of the gown concealed them well, and now it served to adequately preserve her modesty as she undid a second set of ties. She placed the satchels on the table with a heavy thud and removed the contents, relishing the open astonishment of Nessa and the Captain Duke. Two large coin purses, four slender books, and a matched set of dueling pistols were added to the table, along with the small packet of food. She added an extra apple from her pocket and a slim knife from her sleeve. She smiled sweetly at the Captain, his amusement quite apparent.
“Welcome aboard, Clara.”
The girl stood smiling over her stash of goods. The Captain Duke could not help but admire her, bold as brass, coming armed onto his ship. Nessa went pale as smoke at her failure to check the girl for weapons, and now her fingers twitched at the handle of her sword. He waved her off. The girl was no threat. Instead, he leaned forward and looked over the books on the table. One in particular caught his eye.
“The Press and the Public Service, by Grenville-Murray? That’s an interesting text for a lady to be carrying on her… person.”
“Really? I find questions on the modernization of diplomacy to be entirely relevant to one’s education. This is most certainly a definitive work of Grenville-Murray’s, I find it to be much more concise in outlining his politics than the assorted articles in Household Words or The Morning Post,” Clara replied. He raised a brow.
“I was under the impression that Embassies and Foreign Courts was more relative to his career in diplomacy.”
“Yes, but in this text, written later in his career, he expands upon his views of filling the diplomatic ranks by merit and skill rather than patronage. It is quite compelling,” she added.
The Captain Duke did his best to maintain a neutral expression. Reaching over, he slid the small book and one of the coin purses towards his side of the table.
“This will be payment for your commission as a pilot on my ship. Are these terms acceptable to you?”
“Oh, yes!” she said. Nessa cleared her throat in disapproval. Clara corrected herself, “Yes, Captain.”
“Nessa will show you to your new duties. You are dismissed.”
He managed to keep a straight face while Clara attempted to replicate Nessa’s smart salute. She quickly stuffed the remainder of her things into the satchels, including the shirt and breeches procured by Nessa. The two women left, with Clara following eagerly behind. Nessa glared at him, but spoke not a word as she shut the cabin door.
Alone now, he sighed deeply and reflected on the morning’s strange turn of events. A new pilot. A rare text. A stowaway debutante. He hoped that he wouldn’t regret his decision, but he trusted his gut and his instincts told him that Clara could be a valuable asset to his crew. She was a queerly clever girl, and dauntless despite her apparent inexperience in the world. If she was as she seemed, he was certain she would prove to be quite capable. If she was false, however… he refused to complete the thought. He picked up the book and perused the first few pages. This was certainly a day of surprises.
A knock at the door interrupted his study. Trick walked into the cabin.
“Captain? I have the inventory.” He cleared the table, pulling a ledger from the shelves above the desk.
“We can add a text, a purse and a pilot to that list of the goods cleared today.”
“Which text, sir? I already have the pilot noted down,” Trick smiled. The Captain gave him a hard look.
“Pardon me for being eager. Miss Clara did save our lives today. I saw her tailing Nessa and figured she’d found herself a commission.”
“Well I had to find something for her and I doubt she would have taken to being left at the next port. Strange girl, that one.”
“Indeed,” Trick’s eyes glittered for a moment before resuming their seriousness. “Now, if you’ll observe here, their inventory lists don’t match up at all. Only four crates of grain in total, with about 20 extra sacks scattered about to keep up the illusion. The other 56 are filled with barrels of smuggled gunpowder, as far as we were able to ascertain.”
“Did the captain name his client? The reasons for the covert transportation?”
“No, sir, we checked the records and the names are a dead end. All are listed under a John Smith at a false address. He claimed a clerical error at first, and then admitted that he took the cargo for twice the normal rate for transportation with no questions asked.”
“It’s not one of ours, but what would the Tradists need with smuggled powder? They control the imports already.”
“Not for me to say, Captain. I’d recommend sending out a few subtle inquiries, see if it was any other’s business we weren’t informed of. The Widow might know.”
“The Black Widow? If you think it worthwhile then I’ll write to her, but I trust that she would have sent word already if she’d heard anything. Meanwhile, what do you recommend for the Tradist ship? I don’t enjoy the idea of traveling with explosives. We needed that grain. We’ll be targeting another shipment before we dock.”
“I’ve set Robbie to it; he can take the powder back to the Haven to be kept safe until we decide what to do with it.”
“And the captain?”
“That coward? He knew what it was, sir, he led us straight down there. He would have blown the whole ship and us with it. A few surrendered, they ought to be spared, but in my opinion sir, he’s unfit to call himself pilot.”
“Tell Robbie to take them by way of the cliffs. The crew may take their gliders. The captain can swim for his.”
“I’ll pass the order along. Anything else, Captain?”
He considered the rest of the inventory list.
“The larder of the ship was especially well-stocked. It looks like our coward might have spent some of his ill-gotten profits a little early. Leave some of the goose for Robbie and his boys, bring the rest over. We’ll have a feast tonight, officers and crew.”
“Excellent idea, sir. A perfect way to welcome our new pilot.”
“That is not— we already—” he sighed. “That is not my intention. We need to keep up morale for the next raid. None were lost today but that could change.”
“Yes, Captain, of course. I’ll spread the word. ‘Morale’ dinner tonight.” He turned to leave.
“Perhaps some entertainment might contribute to morale.”
His smile grew even wider, “I’ll warm up the squeezebox, sir!”
The Captain returned to updating the ledgers, noting down the name and year of the new book for his collection. After a moment, he added the source.
Clara —, Pilot. July 25th, 1886.
Join the crew! The series finale of the TALES OF THE CAPTAIN DUKE is now available! Visit rebeccadiem.com for more details, along with free short stories and bonus chapters!