Airship Captain Adena Nightingale takes on a smuggling run to the City of Night—and gets more than she bargained for. She rescues Earthman Greg Cole from the frigid desert of BloodDark World’s night side, but Greg in turn wants to rescue his friend, held somewhere in the City of Night. They reach the City, and all hell breaks loose when Adena and Greg find themselves caught up in the deadly aftershocks of an ancient war.
“Show us yer boots!” the parrot said.
Adena hid a smile. Her guest looked down his long nose at the speaker, a large brass and leather parrot perched on a lamp bracket. It glared back at him with a saucy gleam in its crystal eyes and did a little dance, steel claws clacking on the brass mounting.
“What is this thing?” her guest asked.
“Don’t mind him, Erasmus,” Adena said. “It’s an automaton I picked up. It works on the Jaquard principle and has a range of amusing tricks.” She waved the merchant to a seat. “Please, sit, and tell me what we can do for you.”
Erasmus cast one last doubting glance at the construct and sat, carefully tugging the drape of his robes for comfort. The jewel fixed to the front of his crimson fez cast scintillating rainbows around the private parlor. He cleared his throat. “You come highly recommended, Captain, as one prepared to undertake more than the usual risks for a client.”
“For the right price, of course.” Adena tore her gaze away from the jewel. “That depends upon what or who needs carrying, and where, when, and how fast the customer requires the job done.”
“Of course.” Erasmus’s expression looked bland, but his dark eyes gleamed. “I wish to hire you and your airship to undertake a speculative voyage to the City of Night.”
Adena tried not to wince, but Erasmus noticed her reaction and raised an eyebrow.
“If it’s too much for you, I can go elsewhere…”
He made to rise, but Adena held up her hand.
“I’m sure you know why I showed a moment’s hesitation, Erasmus. No one goes to that place lightly. That’s not to say I’m unwilling to go. I will—for the right price.”
He sat back. “What would you consider the right price?”
“Five thousand, half up front.”
“Ridiculous! I offer fifteen hundred, with ten percent down.”
“I wouldn’t get my crew out of bed for that.” Adena gestured to her steward, who lurked nearby. “Light the hookah, Conner. We may be here a while.”
While the steward fussed with the device, she turned back to Erasmus.
“Four thousand, twenty-five percent down.”
“Pah!” Erasmus waved a hand. “Unacceptable. I might go as high as two thousand with twenty, but I have my costs as well.”
“My heart bleeds. Three thousand, with twenty down. No less.”
His eyes glittered, and he rubbed his jaw, his fingertips making a rasping sound over the black bristles of his short beard. Conner offered him a pipe, which Erasmus took with a gracious nod. Adena accepted her own pipe with the amber mouthpiece. Together she and her guest drew upon the hookah, taking a few moments to consider the deal. The tobacco glowed in the bowl, the water bubbled. Aromatic smoke scented the lounge. Adena eyed Erasmus’s jewel with avarice. The parrot watched them both.
Erasmus took the pipe from his mouth. “Agreed. Three thousand, with twenty down it is.” He reached across to shake hands with her. “You drive a hard bargain, Captain.”
“Perhaps not hard enough if we’re to go to the City of Night. What or who do you wish us to take there?”
“It’s a few tons of cargo, specialized parts on the whole, for which the denizens of that place will pay a high price.” He harrumphed in a negligent fashion. “The entire load should be well within your craft’s carrying capacity.”
“That’s for me to judge. Have you the exact weight and volume data for the cargo? It will have an effect on the amount of gas and ballast needed aboard my ship.”
Erasmus looked irritated but handed over a sheet. “It’s all there.”
“Good. Will you be accompanying us?”
He shook his head. “I regret I’m beyond the age where adventures have any appeal. I shall send my nephew, Zared, as supercargo. Because of the sensitive nature of my speculation and to protect those I am in contact with, Zared will have the customer’s address in a sealed envelope. He will hand it to you one day’s journey out from here.”
“That’s acceptable. When will your cargo be ready?”
“It’s in my warehouse at this moment. Zared awaits my authorization, and he will bring it right away.”
“Good.” Adena cast a glance out the parlor’s broad sweep of windows. The Captain’s Comfort Inn overlooked the airship landing field, a broad plain on the outskirts of Penumbra City. A windsock was fixed to a tall mast above the dock office, the red fabric flowing smoothly. “The wind’s set fair for the Dark Side. Send your authorization and have everything aboard within the hour, and we’ll be able to lift today.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Captain.”
Erasmus rose, and they shook hands again before Adena showed him through the inn to the main door. Her purser moved up silently to stand beside her, and together they watched Erasmus descend the steps to the street where one of his liveried servants waited. Erasmus bent his head and muttered something to the young woman and handed her a slip of parchment. She touched her forehead in salute and ran off into the depths of the warehouse district.
Adena gave the purser his instructions. Her first officer leaned against the wall of the inn, soaking up the sun. Seeing her business had concluded, he peeled himself from the wall, walked over, and sketched a salute.
She returned it. “We have a commission, Jake. We’re bound for the City of Night, but a handsome payment awaits.”
Jake Dyer wiped a long lock of red hair from his eyes and looked pained. “It would have to be handsome if we’re going there. What do you need me to do?”
“Erasmus’s nephew will bring the cargo aboard. He’ll come along as supercargo. We have a fair wind today, so if you hurry matters along we could lift within the hour.”