Captain Valant stood at the aft of her Airship, the Sweet Temptation, with one hand on the helm and the other around the telescoped monocular placed against her eye. In the distance, she could see the unmistakable gas bags and vapour trail of another airship. Through the telescope, she could see clearly it was a merchant vessel; its hull swollen to accommodate the goods she could carry, making her look like some giant, wooden, airborne whale.
She'll do, Valant concluded, smiling.
She contracted the eyeglass and placed it back on her hip, alongside her blade. Turning to her First Mate, she nodded. "Mr. Ghost, prepare for offensive action. I shall have that ship".
Mr. Ghost, as pale as his namesake but no less intimidating for it, returned the nod. "Aye, ma'am. They're putting distance between us from the looks of it, no doubt they've spotted us". At six and a half feet tall, Mr. Ghost, or the Ghost as he was often called, was an imposing figure all in dark grey. He was thin, but lithe. His silence and emaciation belied his nimble strength. It was said that the man was everywhere at once, and heard everything. Whether or not it was true, Valant didn't care; it kept her crew in line.
"A wise choice, really" she smiled. "I wouldn't want to be caught by Temptation either".
"Nor I, ma'am, but there'll be no outrunning us. They may prolong the inevitable, but there's no Airship in the sky that can match us for speed".
"You have the truth of it, Mr. Ghost. See to the preparations".
The Ghost nodded once more, before making for the foredeck, barking orders to awaiting crewmen as he went. Valant watched him go, before turning to her other side. "Helmsman, take us after her. I'll be in my cabin. Call me when we're on top of them".
The helmsman made no motion to acknowledge her order, beyond taking the wheel firmly in his hands. He is much more silent since I had his tongue out, to be sure, but a nod wouldn't go amiss. Thinking no more of it, the Captain made her way down the stairs of the aftcastle and then into the interior of the Airship. Arriving at her private cabin, she closed the door behind her and locked it.
The cabin itself was fairly spacious, and not lacking for luxury. The centrepiece of the room was her desk; a huge, varnished Oak table, with gilded corners and strong, narrowing legs that ended in strong claws. The animal they had belonged to was unknown to her, but its feet were fierce. The desk was fierce. Atop it was littered all manner of trinkets and paraphernalia that the Sweet Temptation had plundered over the course of its illustrious career.
Moving around the table, she stopped before her window, and gazed out. Windows were a rare thing aboard War-faring Airships, but Valant had insisted. In an uncommon moment of capitulation, the Captain had agreed to have the window inset somewhat, and to reduce its size, thus minimising the danger of it shattering or providing too much of a target to enemies. What was originally intended to be a window spanning the entire length and breadth of the back wall, was now markedly smaller. It still ran the entire length of her wall, but was now a strip of glass, a meter from top to bottom, broken only in the centre, where the bare wall was covered with a map of the major airways and secret hideouts that only she and a select few knew of. From outside the ship, it gave the impression that the aft of the Temptation was glaring.
Let them think that, Valant had thought, There's nothing on the Temptation for them but death. They would do well to stay away.
The view out of the window was nothing but sky as far as she could see; roiling white clouds not far below her, everywhere else blue, fading slowly to orange, as the daylight began to accede to night's advances. It was a beautiful view, but one she had seen many, many times before.
She moved away from the window and gazed at her map. It was mainly decorative; she had another map for annotations on her desk, but she enjoyed looking at this one. The main Air-trade routes were marked with thick dotted lines. At either end, the names of their terminus' were written in an elegant, delicate handwriting.
The route they were winding their way down now was called the 'Wispway', a smaller sub-route branching off the main 'Cloudline', as it was known. This sub-route was less patrolled by the vessels of the Unified Navy, so Valant had decided that any ship brave, or foolish, enough to travel it deserved whatever befell them. It was, admittedly, a shorter route to the mountain city of Aclivite than the main, heavily defended, 'Nimbusline', so a number of larger trade ships, thinking themselves invincible, made the journey in order to maximise on time and money.
They were her favourite; the ones who thought they could fight her.
The Temptation wasn't the largest Airship in the skies, but she was larger than some of the official Navy warships, and more than a match for any Tradecraft flying. What she lacked in power, she made up for in speed; It had been known for the Temptation to disable its prey and be boarding before the poor, unsuspecting target could get to their ready-stations.
Oh and we can fight, too, Valant thought. We can fight with the best of them. Her crew did not lack for bloodlust, and dozens of battles above the skies of a dozen cities had made them hardened, skilled and truly ruthless warriors. If their speed did not win the day, her crew would.
She reached out and touched the map. The rough parchment was coarse against her skin, but she welcomed it. Slowly, she traced the route of the Cloudline from its starting city, up north at Paceguard, down and down past where the Wispway branched off, travelling further south still, until her finger rested against the end of the line. Marked next to her finger, in the elegant scrawl of the Cartographer, Chronos Bastion. Next to it, in a much scruffier, capitalised scrawl, someone had written one word.
Her finger lingered on that point of the map a few seconds. Her eyes slid closed. In her mind, huge stone walls reared up, their distant battlements peaked with flagpoles, their heralds snapping sharply in the ever changing wind. Turrets and minarets peered over the wall at those beyond the defences. At the top of the highest tower, a window lay open. Through the window, she could see the face she always saw, peering out at her. The face of--
Three sharp knocks at the door brought her back to reality with a gasp. Her finger slipped from its place on the map, and she remembered herself. With a cough, she turned, and made for the door.
It was The Ghost waiting, when she opened the heavy wooden breach. He tilted his head slightly when he saw the slightly distant look in her eyes, but thought better than to ask. "Captain, we're almost upon them. They appear to be coming about".
Valant coughed again. "They're bigger fools than we could have hoped for, then. Mr. Ghost, tell the men to prepare their battle stations, I shall follow".
The First mate nodded curtly, and disappeared down the corridor. The Captain took a moment to compose herself, unnecessarily smoothing down her tunic, and then followed.
On deck, it was frantic, but composed. Men were running back and forth across the deck, fulfilling orders that just kept being barked from The Ghost. Cannonballs were being drawn in crates from below decks to supply the artillery on the main deck. Below the boards, the Temptation housed a hefty broadside of heavier cannonry, but the accuracy and speed of the smaller, above-deck shots were invaluable.
Valant moved through and around the scrambling crew and to the foredeck, to get a better view. Leaning on the bow and looking out across the sky, she could the Tradeship in the near distance, no more than a kilometre away. It was indeed coming about to present her broadside to them, and it looked more heavily armed than she had anticipated. Two sub-decks of cannons poked from her hull's flank. Black noses, suspicious and twitchy. She was certain that if they were to exchange broadsides in straight combat, the Temptation would not fare well.
What can you be carrying that's so important as to be defended so heavily? She wondered. The cost of the ship and all those armaments would offset the price of transporting almost anything. It had to be something special. Something exceedingly valuable.
Valant was determined she would have it. Whatever it was, somebody had gone to a lot of trouble for it.
When she returned to the Helm, she was joined by her First Mate, who had finished shouting orders. "The crew awaits your command, Captain" he said.
"Very good, Mr. Ghost. They're boasting a two-deck broadside and I don't want so much as a splinter on my hull". She turned her head to address the helmsman, "Take us higher. Above their guns". Again, with no acknowledgement, the mute man put his foot to a pedal just below the large, brass steering device. Down at the very stern of the Temptation, the altitude rudders raised their heads curiously. The airship began to steadily ascend.
She turned back to her First Mate. "Tell the engine room, take us to attack speed ".
Ghost looked as confused as she had at the prospect of the ship being so heavily armed. "My Captain, are you ... certain about this? A two-deck broadside is a powerful showing. Who knows what else they--"
"I am always certain, sir. Now tell the engine room. I need speed". There was no more arguing. With another curt nod, the pale man headed for the Communications deck. Valant turned to the helmsman.
"Prepare for evasive manoeuvres, Mr. Domm. And be ready to flank them. Like I said, not a splinter".
This time the helmsman did nod, his grip on the wheel tightening.
Valant looked to the fore. Ahead of them, the Tradeship loomed, dropping below the prow of the ship as the Temptation rose higher. She could just make out the figures of men on-deck, braced and ready for combat. Briefly, the Captain considered the possibility that she was making a mistake, but she soon banished the thought.
There was a hiss from next to the helm; the small two-way mouthpiece was sounding off. Valant grabbed it, taking the mouthpiece in one hand, and putting the receiver to her ear. "Mr. Ghost?"
"Aye, Captain. Engine room complying with orders. Awaiting further command".
"Very good. Stay where you are, I'll need a direct line to the Engines".
"As you will".
Ahead of them, only the gasbags of the larger ship could be seen as the Temptation reached a height that Valant was comfortable with. Along their sides was emblazoned their insignia, swelling in the centre with the curve of the balloon. Something struck Valant about this particular insignia; a large red oval formed the background. On top of that was a treasure chest, mostly closed, but straining somewhat under the amount of gold and shining material trying to burst forth from it. In front of the chest, three large serpents reared up, facing anyone who looked at the insignia. Their hoods were wide and their eyes were angry.
Valant didn't like it. Worse still, she recognised it.
There were no Trading Companies that used such brazenly defensive imagery in their logos, nor did any she know have them screened across the ships themselves. It had been a long time since she had seen anything like this on an Airship, save her own simplistic insignia, and yet she couldn't quite remember it. Those snakes, defending that chest, and their hoods.
She realised what it was just as there was another hiss from her ear. "Captain. We're being hailed".
She took a moment to respond, still struck by her realisation. "Y-yes, Mr. Ghost. Hailed by whom?"
Ghost did not sound happy in his reply. "By the trade ship, ma'am". Something about the way he said 'Trade' made her feel uneasy. "They demand to speak to the Captain".
Valant balked at that. "Demand? Who do they think they are, to demand anything from me!?"
There was a short pause. "They demand to speak to the Captain. They demand it, by order of the Guild of the Three Cobras".
That was it. The Guild of the Three Cobras. Notorious across the world as the best, and perhaps more famously, most expensive, escort-cum-courier service that money could buy. If you could afford it. They carried enough guns and armaments aboard their Galleons to cause even some of the strongest self-proclaimed Skylords to keep their distance. Through loopholes and caveats in the legal system, they were not bound by how many guns and weapons they were allowed to carry--a gap in the 'Disproportionate Firepower' act that had yet to be plugged.
Whatever the Cobras carried aboard their ships was defended by enough men and gunpowder to start a war in the skies that could be seen from the Frozen wastes of the Eastern Fringes.
The wind seemed somehow stronger to Valant. She took a heavy step forward and placed her hand on the railing to steady herself, lest this wind blow her away. Glancing around, she saw that the rest of the crew didn't seem to notice the sudden gale.
"Ma'am?" Ghost's voice was still in her ear. "Ma'am. The Cobras demand a response... Captain!"
Captain. Yes, Captain, that's what I am. She remembered. Of course she remembered. How could she forget? She was the scourge of the skies. She got what she wanted; she always got what she wanted.
"Tell them they have 30 minutes, Mr. Ghost. There will be no negotiations but for this; tell them to lower their standards, present her aft to us, and surrender. If my demands are not fulfilled in that time, then we're coming aboard, and there will be no quarter".
Ghost's voice was stern. "Captain Valant, these are Cobras. We could be starting a war with the entire compa--"
"Thirty minutes, Mr. Ghost, tell them". There was a pause. She waited. After a few, long moments, her First Mate finally replied.
"As you will".
He stood up suddenly, far faster than he should have. The world span, his vision blurred. He swayed on the spot, reached out to grab something to support himself and, when nothing presented itself, fell to his knees. He took several long moments to draw breath, place himself, and remember.
Fighting. There had been fighting. Blood. Death. Explosions. He had sat in his seat and he had ... he had ... what had he done? He hadn't ... he hadn't ... agreed? No, he had said no to someone. To something. Someone.
He drew himself back to his feet. Slower, this time, with determined purpose. Once he had composed himself, he took a look around the scene. The Chamber of Governance was a picture of chaos. Senators were fleeing, their deep crimson robes flowing behind them and, in some unlucky cases, below them, as they tripped or fell. Some were people he knew, had seen before, some were unknown, their faces obscured behind masks, hoods, or blood.
In the centre of the room, the battle he had committed to raged. His faithful guard, emblazoned in their Golden armour, struck out at the opposing foe, Blood splashed across their gleaming silver breastplates and stained their sky-blue capes a deeper, navy shade of night. For all their skill and courage, however, his men appeared to be losing at the moment of their cessation. They had fought valiantly, but everything had turned sour just before the roof had imploded.
He turned, suddenly terrified, to gaze wide-eyed at the gaping maw in the ceiling. He was briefly afraid it was still collapsing, and staggered backwards away from it. In his panic, he nearly tripped and fell down the great stone stairs behind him, but he managed to regain his composure as he realised that, much like the men around him, the Airship's attack had frozen in time as well.
Frozen in time. I thought it was a fairy tale.
He drew himself up again, to his full height. Proud, rigid. Fear and panic are not feelings that the Grand Prince of the Empire should show.
This Empire, his Empire had been born in the ashes of his Father, the Grand King of the Second. His father had succumbed to an illness not long after declaring war on the North. It was an official declaration, backed by both the Senate and the people. They had mobilised that very same moment, the Empire’s airfleet sailing forth with speed and strength to engage the Unified Navy in the skies over Chronos Bastion. It would be their first great victory. With it, they forced the capitulation of the Bastion without the loss of a single man within its walls.
The battle in the skies above had been so fierce, and lasted for so long, that many doubted anybody would win, but when the drumbeat of cannons had finally stopped, and the mist cleared, the great standard of the Empire snapped and fluttered angrily above them, with not a single Unified Airship left.
The Bastion had welcomed an end to the fighting, then. They had even welcomed him, the Crown Prince of the Empire, when he had arrived to be their Regent; Commander of their foothold in the north. From his seat in the 'impregnable' Chronos Bastion, the castle that nobody thought could be taken, he had launched his offensive along the skylines and shores of the entire Northern continent. Within a month, five of the eight shoreline cities had surrendered, and the Trade-routes all flew through the Bastion to refuel and resupply.
Traders didn't care who was in charge, they just cared about the profit. The Prince understood this, the Prince accepted this. The Prince welcomed this. Other despots would have shot them out of the sky, and there'd have been no trade in Chronos Bastion for a hundred generations. The Prince welcomed them with open arms, making sure the Castle produced as much as possible to trade and resupply traders who had flown all the way to the end of the line.
It was in this way that the Bastion had grown, and soon become the central point of the entire Empire, second only to the Grand Capital. But the Bastion was his, the victories were his. Chronos Bastion was the stage from where the war was fought. The Grand Capital was half a world away, stagnant and delicate, untouched and unknowing of the war and glory that existed to the North. The Grand Capital was no longer the Empire. The Empire, in reality, was his.
But what Empire? He thought. What now? I have lost everything. I lost my trade, I lost my Bastion, I lost my war, and then I lost time itself. And now here I am, trapped. Trapped by the last, dying act of a vengeful woman and an even more Vengeful Viscount.
No, he suddenly thought, gazing around him. No. Not trapped. Freed. I walk again, I feel. For me, time flows again. Something must have gone wrong. Gone right! She failed, because time flows through me again, and I through it. The rest of this world may be frozen, but not I!
He almost skipped down the steps. He strode with purpose through the scene before him, glancing left and right at the madness that had stopped around him. In a way, he thought he should be thankful. The stopping of time may well have saved these people's lives. His people's lives, anyway. Not his enemy's.
No. For his enemies, death would be welcome thing when the Empire of the Second was reborn around them.