Photo credit: Suzanne Flynn.
Author’s Note: Here’s the first part of the story I wrote for a short story anthology published by my local public library. You can purchase the anthology here. All proceeds go to the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library. This story has been reformatted for easier reading on this blog.
Gravat Miller was no longer a soldier in His Majesty’s Prestorian Army. For twenty long years, he did everything his superiors ever asked of him without complaint or delay. Now, he wandered the streets of Kenton alone in civilian clothing, unsure of what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
With four silver lilies to his name – he already spent one on a coach from the barracks – he tried thinking of what work he could get at his age. In the city, everyone of his social standing usually worked in a factory or on the steam machines. It took a lifetime to learn how to do it well, though, and Gravat spent his life on different pursuits. He’d be lucky if he could get work mopping the floors of a grease locker or a coal room.
Above, sky ship engines buzzed all around, ferrying passenger liners into the nearby aerodrome. The old sergeant looked up at one, considering life in some foreign land. Kaiser Sturmhard in Schweiberia had a regiment of foreigners, and Princess Daphne in Chantali had a reputable foreign legion. He almost turned a shoe towards the aerodrome when he realized he might be called upon to fight his old friends. Some of them might understand, but Gravat knew he couldn’t bring himself to fire upon old comrades in arms.
Across the street, Gravat heard a piano belting out rags. The sound came from a drinking den that looked like it had been maintained by the patrons too drunk to hold a hammer. Smoke billowed out the front entryway in a gray sheet, and every conversation occurred at maximum volume. Over the door, a sign read, “The Journeyman’s Rest.” Waiting for a couple of steam cars to pass by, Gravat crossed the road and decided to check the place out.
Inside, was pure chaos. Over in one corner, he saw fights, gambling, and fights over gambling. In another, he found a team of engineers wrestling with an automaton, the latter spinning wildly enough to break a table and all the glasses on it. Above the fray, a woman in a green dress swung perilously from a chandelier, drinking from a mug and singing along to the music coming from the piano. Gravat sighed heavily, wondering if this was the company he’d have to keep in his abrupt retirement. He walked through the den to the bar, pausing twice to let brawlers pass, and flashed a lily at the barkeep. “A mug of your finest,” he said, using the term loosely.
“You could buy the whole place a round for that,” said the keep, a man about as round in the belly as he was tall.
Gravat imagined this wasn’t a place that made change for silver. “Of course, that’s what I meant.”
Pointing at the sergeant, the barkeep shouted, “Listen up! This guy just bought the house a round!” Some people cheered, others cussed in appreciation, but nobody stopped what they were doing. The barkeep took the soaking rag from his shoulder and wiped a mug with it. He waddled over to a tap and opened it up, filling the glass all the way to the top. Setting it down on the bar, he slid it over to Gravat.
Turning around, Gravat took a sip of the brew, which had a kick more fierce than his rifle. He braced himself for another sip when the music from the piano stopped. Everything else stopped too, including the woman on the chandelier, who jumped down without spilling a drop of her drink. “Not you again! That was my favorite song!” she protested, glaring at a woman standing next to the piano.
“Give me one minute of your time, and I’ll be happy to let you return to it,” she said, dropping an electric cord on the floor.
The rest of the bar let out a collective groan. “My name is Betsy Rikert,” she began.
“We know!” shouted the bar, everyone rolling their eyes in perfect unison.
Betsy ignored them. “I represent Gertrude Allaine, of the Allaine Steamship Company. If you are brave of heart, bold in spirit, and relatively sound of mind, then I have a job for you. It’s a dangerous task, but you’ll be well compensated.”
“Oh, go find someone else to do your dirty work,” said an engineer, pinned to the ground by his automaton. “Or at least explain why nobody ever comes back after you hire them.”
“I’d like to hear her out,” said Gravat. He considered the woman across the den. She dressed like a corporate lackey, wearing a decent woolen suit and a starched collar that hadn’t frayed. Gravat got off the bar and walked up to her. “How much?”
“I am afraid such a tranzaction is illegal,” said a deep voice at the den’s entrance. It belonged to a man wearing dark goggles and a gray coverall stuffed into heavy boots and thick gloves. Five other people in matching attire flanked him on both sides. “Mizz Rikert is an enemy of ze Confederacy, and she shall haf to come vis us.” They all brought out steam pistols from their coveralls, aiming them at Gravat and his would-be employer.
“My word, this escalated quickly,” said Gravat. He asked Betsy, “Why do I have guns pointed at me?”
“The Kesperrian government has a misunderstanding with my employer,” she explained.
“Zis is no misunderstandink,” said the spy, changing his aim to Betsy. “Ve vill not allow you to shteel ze Sky Princess.”
The entire audience in the den said, “The Sky Princess?”
Gravat sighed. “What’s a ‘sky princess’?” he asked.
“You haven’t heard of her?” an engineer asked. “She’s only the fastest and best armed sky ship ever built by Prestorian hands.”
“Zis is a lie!” shouted the Kesperrian agent.
Gravat scratched his head. “I take it your employer built this thing, and now wants it back?”
Betsy nodded eagerly. “Right. My employer built it. Exactly. The rest of it is a long story.”
“The Kesperrians have always been enemies of Prestoria,” said Gravat. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they stole it first.”
The spy waved his pistol at the pair. “Hello? I haf a pishtol, and I’m villink to use it!”
“One moment,” said Betsy and Gravat.
“Look,” said Betsy, “I can tell you that you’re completely right. The dastardly Kesperrians stole the ship, and we need to recover it. I really could use the help from a military man such as yourself.”
“Who said I was in the military?” asked Gravat.
“It’s ze hair,” said the spy.
“You also have perfect posture,” said the chandelier woman. Several engineers and the automaton nodded in agreement.
Outside, Gravat heard shouting followed by heavy footsteps. Five people exploded through the entrance, right into the spies. Everyone fell to the ground in a giant tangled mess. A woman with light brown hair that resembled a bird’s nest popped up out of the pile. She looked at Gravat and said, “Is this West Bremerheim?”
“No,” said Gravat, fearing he’d reached his limit for strange things happening to him in one day. “You’re in Kenton.” The woman just blinked. He added, “The capital of the Kingdom of Prestoria.”
She looked crestfallen. “It should have worked this time. Perhaps I need to readjust the coefficient of reality.”
A nasal voice squeaked from inside the pile. “Ginny, of course it didn’t work! I told you so, but nobody listens to me!”
“Oh, calm down, Flannigan,” said another man, poking his head out from between a spy’s boots. He freed an arm and fished around in the pile, pulling his friend out by the collar. “See? We just ran into some new people. Looks like we’re in a public house!”
“The Journeyman’s Rest,” Gravat added. “The beer’s not too bad.”
Flannigan and a couple of spies erupted from the pile as a large man bounced up. He let out a thunderous belch which shook the windows and knocked his top hat askew. “I’ll be the judge of that!” he bellowed.
Outside, Gravat heard a faint sound of whistles and shouting. He strained to listen, but the nearby commotion grabbed his attention again. The large man had mostly undone the human pile, revealing the last of the five new arrivals. It was a woman wearing a heavy brown overcoat and thick, shaded engineer’s goggles. She climbed to her feet and dusted herself off. “I’m afraid there’s no time for a beer, Jim,” she said, slapping the rotund man on the arm. Searching she found the other man that lifted out Flannigan. “Isak, we need to get going.” She looked right at Gravat. “Does this establishment have a rear exit by any chance?”
“I actually haven’t been here long enough to find out, let alone finish my beer,” said the sergeant.
Jim walked up to Gravat and took the mug gently from his hand. “It will be my honor to help you,” he said, his breath almost wilting the old veteran.
“That sounds like the police outside,” said Betsy, looking through the door nervously.
“Is that a steam pistol?” asked Isak, taking one from an unconscious spy. “How quaint! Where’s the boiler? Is it pocket-sized? A backpack? Belt clip?”
“Focus!” said the engineer. She turned to Betsy. “What exactly did we interrupt here?”
The corporate representative eyed the door. “I feel like I should be asking you that.”
“Don’t change the subject,” the engineer replied.
“Ms. Rikert and I were going to recover the Sky Princess from the clutches of the Kesperrian government. You and your associates subdued some of their agents just now,” Gravat explained. “Thank you for your rescue.”
“You’re after the Sky Princess?” said the engineer. She licked her lips. “I’d like to get my hands on that fine piece of engineering.”
“Does that mean you would like to help?” asked Gravat.
The engineer and most of her friends nodded enthusiastically. Flannigan looked like he just ate a lemon. “While the guy seems nice, I’m not sure I trust her-”
“Don’t impose on them,” said Betsy, grabbing Gravat’s arm. “It should only take the two of us.”
“I’ll split my salary with them,” Gravat said. “If this is really a matter of domestic security, I should like to bring a team with me.”
Light from the police’s electric lanterns illuminated the building across the street. Betsy looked at it and said, “Sure, fine, you’re all hired. Let’s get going, shall we?”
“Splendid!” shouted the engineer. “Felicity DuBois, at your service!” One of the police rounded the building, and pointed at the den. He let out a loud whistle. She said, “Full introductions can be made later.”
“Naturally,” said Betsy, who directed them to the den’s back exit. They all ran out, except for Jim, who paused for a refill of his mug.