The sun beat down, bathing the white beach below us in shimmering heat mirages. The ocean off our starboard bow lay calm, not a breath of wind to ruffle it into waves. I had ordered The Indiana brought in low to the water, her balloon keeping us just above the glassy surface. It had been a quiet cove until we got here. Now the crew cavorted in the cool waters below, splashing and giggling like children.
I stretched, set down my quill, removed my soft leather boots and kicked them under my bunk. Tossing my captain’s hat on top of my bed to keep it safe I ran out of the cabin. The wind in my flying hair was a marvelous feeling. Taking a flying leap off the plank into thin air I yelled, “Cannonball!” The warm Mediterranean Sea closed over my head, muting and muffling the crew’s whoops and laughter.
When I surfaced they resumed their game of skins with me in the middle. First mate Tyler threw the leather ball to Henri, our ship’s doctor, narrowly missing me as I ducked under the water. The goal was to capture the ball and shove someone else into the middle. I grabbed Henri’s ankles, pulling him underwater just as he threw the ball to Nina, our pilot. He came up sputtering sea-water and curses when Seamus yelled down from the ship, “Captain, we’ve got incoming!”
Never a moment’s rest. “Are they friendly?” I yelled back, scrambling to the rope ladder.
“I dunna know,” Seamus replied in his thick accent.
“Finish your game another time,” I shouted to the crew in the water. “All hands on deck. Raise anchor!”
Seamus had good eyes; the air-cruiser was still at least ten minutes out of hailing distance. Running to my cabin, I peeled my wet clothing off, sliding into dry pants and a clean, billowy green shirt. Fingers flying, I laced into a comfortable bodice, sliding my daggers into their sheaths just in case. Grabbing my spyglass I ran out on deck and looked over the oncoming cruiser, noting the gold lettering near her stern, The Betsy Quinn, flying the colors of the English crown.
As we rose into the air I could see that The Betsy Quinn was twice as long as The Indiana, her wooden decks gleaming in the sunlight. She was crowded with gaily waving passengers. A cruise ship then, probably headed for Marseille.
Much to my surprise, as The Betsy Quinn approached, she slowed and a crewman hailed us, “Might this be The Indiana under the command of Captain Jacqueline or Captain Jac? Does Mr. Tyler Daft still serve aboard?”
“Oui, I am Captain Jac, and Tyler is first mate, why do you ask?” I called back.
“I’ve a message for him. We had thought to find you in Marseille, but as you’re here, I’ll pass it along now if you don’t mind.”
“Bring The Quinn up close and we’ll be happy to take it.” I shook my unruly hair out of my eyes and muttered, “Tyler, do you know what this is about?”
He shrugged, “Not at all Captain, but they hail from England, so it could be news from home.”
As the ship drew alongside, a crewman from The Betsy Quinn stood on the railing, rope in hand. “Permission to come aboard, Captain?” he called over.
“Granted!” I shouted back over the hum of the steam engine.
I watched the rope’s lazy arc as the uniformed sailor swung from one ship to the other. It was skillfully done, and he landed lightly, the rope’s end still in his hands. Tyler stepped up, “I understand you have a message for me?” He eyed the sailor with some suspicion.
“Aye, a lady left this with the Captain. She asked us to deliver it when we ran into you on our trip. Paid the Captain handsomely, she did. Seemed to know you’d be around Marseille.” The sailor handed over a small package. He doffed an imaginary cap in my direction. “If there’s nothing else ma’am, I’ll be back to my ship so we can keep on schedule.”
I thanked him, and pressed a small silver piece into his palm. He tucked it handily in a belt pouch and climbed the rope back to his ship. Making sure the rigging was free and clear, I eyed The Betsy Quinn as it cruised on towards Marseille.
“So Tyler, what was that all about?” I turned to the first mate to find him staring with puzzlement at the package as the rest of the crew gathered around.
“Oooh, you’ve got a lady friend that you didn’t tell us about,” Marie, our curly haired mechanic giggled, poking Tyler in the ribs. “What did she send you?”
Tyler blushed and mumbled under his breath.
“What was that?” I asked, smiling. Mail was an unusual luxury that drew attention every time it arrived.
“I don’t have a lady friend,” he stammered. “I have no idea who this came from.”
“Well, let’s bring it down to the common room and see what it is then.” I gestured towards the door leading below decks. “Perhaps you picked up an admirer last time you were in England and didn’t know it.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders; ears still pink as we gathered around the table. Tyler set the palm sized flat box on the table and began unwrapping the brown parcel paper, his fingers moving across the paper deftly. The script on the front had his name in a flowing feminine handwriting.
He pulled the lid off the box carefully and extracted a folded piece of paper, scented heavily with perfume. As he read, his hands began to tremble, and he dropped the paper like it was a viper. I moved to pick it up, but he thrust my hands out of the way violently.
“No Captain! Don’t touch it! Don’t any of you touch it!” Tyler yelled, hands shaking as he shoved himself back from the table.
Eyebrow raised, I leaned over the table, carefully not touching the note and read its contents.
My Dearest Tyler,
I am dreadfully sorry to use you in this way, as you seemed a charming fellow on our brief acquaintance. You may or may not be aware of the Stewart Sapphire, a glorious gemstone the size of an egg – it once belonged to the crowned heads of Scotland, and is now part of the English Crown Jewels. The Sapphire is being moved from London to Paris on June 30th via the airship Allona. It is to be recut by a master gem smith in Paris and then returned to the crown.
I want you to steal it for me. I will use it to reclaim the Scottish throne for the glory and power of the Stuarts. Using my automaton we will take down the monarchy of England. The gem is part of the final programming for my automaton and I must have it for the completion of my master plan!
As an incentive for your cooperation in this matter, when the gem is delivered to me I will provide the antidote for the poison that coats this letter. It is a slow acting poison. You will have plenty of time to retrieve the gem and deliver it. By my estimation you have about six days to live. You may deliver it to me in Glasgow at the confectioner's shop. Signal your arrival by ordering a green and purple cake from the shop assistant.
With love and affection,
Turning to the ship’s doctor I said, “Henri, the note is poisoned, see what you can do for Tyler. Marie, bring me some …” I paused as the note burst into flames, charring to ash in moments. Merde.