Whenever Ula and I talk on the phone, it lasts for hours, sometimes late into the night. At least three nights recently, Blaze has not had a bedtime story because he fell asleep long before I hung up the phone. So, one day last week Ula said that she felt guilty about that, and the next time we talked that late, she would read him a bedtime story over the phone. The next time she called, he asked for his story from her almost as soon as I answered the phone, but I told him to wait, that I wanted to talk to her first. Again, he fell asleep without a story. The next day, we received this exciting new story of the adventures of Neriena Wordsmith and Blaze (Ula's and Blaze's steampunk personas). After getting off the phone with me sometime after eleven o'clock at night, Ula had gone and typed up a new bedtime story for Blaze, to make up for the story he'd missed. Here is that story:
Blaze watched with some scorn as the hunting party left the woods, empty handed. The party had been made of some of the well to do local boys, as well as some of the visiting elite who had come to idle in the countryside. Some of the other well to do local boys, Blaze corrected himself, the official story after all was that was that he was Neriena's younger brother, and Neriena was considered very well to do. Most of Blaze's scorn came from the guns that the young men carried, they were useless by his standards, and his mind flashed for several seconds to how they could be improved. He dismissed these thoughts however, his plans would have made the guns killing machines while it was clear that the guns carried by the hunting party had been built to look good. While his improvements would insure that if there was any game to be had at all, the men would be able to shoot it, they would no longer be able to admire how nice their guns looked in those photographs that they insisted on taking.
It was not that Blaze did not like pictures, he did, but he could not understand the purpose of standing around admiring how nice you looked with a gun that was not actually good enough to shoot anything. He wished that Neriena had not banned him from carrying any of his guns while they were on her country estate, she was very insistent that they try to be respectable at least here, that way they would have a place to return to if things went badly with their city job. Unable to enjoy the simple pleasure of having his explosives and guns near him, Blaze was left to stalk around the estate, glaring at the neighbors.
Neriena was in no better mood when he got home than he was himself. She was in her study, a serious and somber affair full of dark wood and ledgers, pacing back and forth and throwing things. Frank, their navigator who had been with them since their pirating days, and who now acted as their butler, was leaning back in one of the chairs like a man appreciating a fine show. It was most likely the wisest course of action. When Neriena got in such moods she would calm down on her own eventually but was very difficult for outside forces to stop. When Neriena saw Blaze however, she did seem to calm down some, here at last was someone she could rant at.
“That Ms. Henson from the church committee stopped around,” Neriena began and Blaze could feel his heart sink. He sincerely hoped that this would not be another church committee story, the politics inside of that particular group made a pirate ship look civilized but Neriena had insisted on joining the local one because she thought it was necessary to seem respectable. It in all likelihood was, but that did not mean that Blaze enjoyed hearing about it.
“Don't worry,” said Frank, seeing Blaze's face. “It gets good.”
“She made it very clear to me that as one of the old maids of the community I am expected to assist in the organization of the church bazaar, since the married women are far too busy with their families. She then added that as one of the leading families, a sizable contribution would not be amiss.”
Blaze almost choked on thin air, the thought of someone calling Neriena and old maid, and to her face, was unthinkable. The thought that Neriena had had to put on a smile, even if it had been a fake one, until the woman left because this was where they retreated when the city got too warm for them, was even more unthinkable. He could not believe that Neriena was not suggesting that they burn down the town and go back to pirating out of retaliation. He had long known that the town in the valley below their hilltop home called Neriena an old maid, and that they called him the Wordsmith boy, which he liked about as much, but he had never thought that anyone would be rude enough to call Neriena an old maid to her face so he had never warned her of the possibility.
“You didn't agree to do the bazaar did you?” Blaze asked, once he had reevaluated his impression of Neriena's self control.
“I have no idea what one is, so of course I didn't. I figured I'd ask around after she had left,” said Neriena. Blaze had to remember, she had grown up in a slum in New York where no one had enough money to buy clothing nice enough for church, followed first by ships and then by China, neither of which had many church bazaars.
“It's boring is what it is,” said Blaze, dredging up memories of a past that Neriena had always been too polite to ask him about. “There are always religious speakers who talk about the duty of giving a lot of money to the church and then there are little booths with games and food. Then there is a lot of jam, and quilts, and things.”
“They want ME to participate in jam, and quilts, and things,” said Neriena, sounding horrified.
“I have even better news for you,” said Blaze cheerfully. “The Andrews brothers were hunting in our woods again. At least they didn't kill anything. It looked like they had brought in a whole party to show off the local landscape to.”
Neriena had tried, she really had. The Andrews were the second wealthiest family in the town, other than the Wordsmith family, a fact that they greatly resented since before Neriena had come they had been the richest and they had enjoyed the position. That was fine since Neriena resented the fact that Mr. Andrews went by squire, so they were even. As a powerful family, any farmer in the area would have allowed the Andrews to hunt on their land, so of course the Andrews instead decided to hunt on Wordsmith land, which was closed to anyone except by invitation. Neriena decided that she had had enough.
“We are going to the city, gather up the crew,” she told Blaze and Frank in a voice that spoke of fraying nerves. “The sooner we get away from here and into the air the happier I'll be.”
They did not immediately get airborne, even on reaching the city. They needed a manifest to make the port officials not suspicious of them. First they needed to find a cargo or passengers against a backdrop of a hundred other airships trying for the same business. Neriena's crew had an advantage however, they were willing to take dangerous jobs, and that did attract business to them. When the railroad man approached them it was Blaze who stepped forward, he acted as the captain in the public eye, at least until the ship was up in the sky, it made business easier.
“I hear you are a man who likes his explosives,” said the railroad man once they were in his office. It was a generous comment when the rest of the world considered Blaze a boy still. “I have a cargo of dynamite that needs to get to San Francisco.”
“The transcontinental railway is finished,” said Blaze. He could imagine a lot of uses for dynamite that did not involve railways and he wanted to ensure their cargo was not used for any of them. It might lead to an investigation of their business.
“But the transcontinental isn't my company, there are still mountains to be blasted through.”
“So a train company wants to use my airship,” Blaze said, still suspicious.
“I am not willing to ship the supplies for my company through another train company, that would be helping the competition,” the man explained.
“Leaving me with the risk of carrying explosives on ship filled with helium,” said Blaze. Of course it would not be the only explosive on board, Blaze probably had enough to blow up the office building they were in inside of his room alone, but it would be poor business decision to admit.
“There is little danger, the dynamite is well packed,” said the railroad man shrugging. “I hear the Germans have started making dirigibles filled with hydrogen for more lifting power, that I feel is a grave mistake, but I have little fear for your ship so long as you do not bring fire next to the boxes.” Blaze secretly agreed but still extracted extra money from the man for the danger of their cargo for good measure.
Their cargo of explosives was packed in their hold, which had originally been designed to carry the luggage of passengers. Neriena and Blaze had modified it soon after Blaze had come on board so that a portion of it was a fire proof room and completely air tight. Neriena had made it clear when Blaze had started bringing explosives onto the ship that she wasn't entirely comfortable with them simply laying around her ship where they could cause the ship to burn before it touched the ground. It was into this room that they placed their cargo of dynamite. The moment it was stowed Neriena gave the order to cut loose and began the long trip to California.
The entire crew was happier once they were airborne. Neriena was able to truly act as captain, her rightful place, which put her in a better mood. With Neriena cheerfully stomping around the ship dressed like a man, it seemed as if her mood was contagious. Blaze took the chance to care of his beloved guns, and put a couple of new designs in place. The mechanics and engineers buried themselves in the engine and the entire crew could hear them singing some very dirty sea shanties that were left over from the days when the crew had sailed the sea rather than the air. The ship's cook, who still cooked for Neriena at her estate, took the chance to cook the food he actually liked and not the sort of food that he now had to cook to please society women who visited Neriena. The smell from the kitchen suggested that that night's dinner was going to be fish chowder.
They were no longer alone in the sky, everyone knew that, it seemed like the world was taking to the air. At one time Neriena's pirates, the military, and a couple of the idle rich had been the only ones sailing, now passenger dirigibles crossed the nation regularly. At first Neriena thought that the ship that sailed in front of them and then circled them several times at a distance was such a ship. It was only its suspicious behavior that caused her to pay it any attention at all. She was leaning out of the mess hall window with a spy glass when it closed in and she could see the pirate flag it flew in several places. A skull with crossed daggers below it.
“That's my flag,” she sputtered indignantly. “I designed it!” It had been her vanity, a tribute to the fact that she favored a long bladed sailor's knife over any of the many swords that they had in the armory.
“Can we worry about the cannons that seem to be pointed at us from those windows?” asked Blaze, standing beside her and looking through his own glass.
“Release two bags of ballast,” screamed Neriena. It was the quickest evasive maneuver they had and it could be corrected later by the release of some of the helium. Few dirigibles carried ballast since the general goal was to make the ships as light as possible, but Neriena had always insisted for just such an occasion.
As the ship rose from the release of weight, several cannonballs flew harmlessly under them. Blaze meanwhile had run to the control room of the dirigible and was shouting into the speaking tube to tell everyone that they were under attack. It made Neriena proud to see how quickly the ship was mobilized even several years of relative peace. Blaze supervised the rolling out of his cannons from the lockers that they were now normally kept in, each one of the gleaming and dangerous, Neriena was willing to bet that they were the best in the sky. Every crew member armed himself with his choice of weapon and stood at the ready, waiting for what might happen. They were a motley group, armed with their favorite weapons, from cutlasses to pistols, and dressed as they pleased from fine suits to mechanics overalls. Such self expression was one of the things that pleased Neriena about her crew and she looked over them with a creator's pride.
“Frank,” she told their navigator. “Lure them to place over a lake. I'm already worried about where those cannonballs they just shot ended up. Let's keep it from raining lead down on villages.”
“We're higher than they are and I doubt they'll be able to rise up to our level. We could just sail away,” pointed out Frank.
“Not a chance, they are pretending to be us, that makes this personal,” said Neriena. “Using our hard work so they don't have to do their own. I'm going to go get ready for the fight, call me when we're in position.”
By the time that Neriena came back out on deck they were almost over a lake and the engineers were standing by to release the helium that would bring them down to the same level as the pirates. She had changed into a loose skirt, mostly because she found that when people attacking them realized that she was female they tended to pause just long enough to give them an advantage. She was carrying two dirks and three pistols, which she felt was sufficient to take advantage of that opportunity. Blaze had also clearly visited his cabin because he was now decked out with guns and dynamite in a way that should have frightened anyone who came face to face with him. The few in the past that had not been frightened by him were those who latter turned out to be insane.
Frank brought them down directly beside the other ship, something that Neriena's crew had been prepared for but something that took the pirate crew by surprise. It was that glorious moment that Neriena loved when the hunter realized that they had been hunting a lion rather than a rabbit. In a flash the crew had the cannons out and blasting. They aimed for the dirigible's helium holding area rather than the cabin below, it was a quick way to end a fight, in theory. Unfortunately in the time it took before the enemy dirigible actually sank towards the lake the pirates realized what was happening and they swung grappling hooks from their windows to hook onto Neriena's vessel. Neriena could feel their ship sink slightly under their added weight as they climbed into the various ports around the ship. All of the windows in the dirigible had been opened as vents for gun smoke.
Now it was a melee fight and that was fine by Neriena's crew. Blaze seemed to be everywhere, usually in close proximity to small and controlled explosions. The cannons stood forgotten as their crews joined in the fight. Neriena ignored most of the fighting, except to save Frank from a man with a sword, it was hard for him to fight and control the ship at the same time. Neriena wanted their leader and she could see him every once in a while in the whirling fight. Blaze found him first but Neriena was a close second. Most of the pirate crew had already been defeated at that point, they were green and inexperienced compared to Neriena's seasoned veterans. The captain of the pirates was easy to find even in the clouds of smoke that now filled the cabin, because he was not willing to surrender. Neriena was troubled to see that the door Blaze had finally pinned him to with some sort of dart shooting gun Neriena had never seen before, was the door that they held the dynamite in. Blaze had another gun out but Neriena stopped him and sat cross legged on the floor in front of the now captive pirate captain.
“So I'd like to have a word with you about that flag you were flying.”
“What about it?” asked the man, almost spitting defiance until he saw the look on Neriena's face and thought better of it.
“I'd like you to come up with your own, that one's mine,” said Neriena.
“We're letting them go?” asked Blaze.
“We're not the military, we've got no reason to hunt pirates,” said Neriena, shrugging.
“I'll tell the crew before they get other ideas,” said Blaze, nodding.
“The pirates that flew that flag were shot down by the military three years ago,” said the pirate captain, struggling against the darts that had pinned him to the door. Neriena did not give him good chances at freeing himself. The darts had been shot with enough force that they had plunged into metal and then they had seemingly hooked themselves, pining several layers of the captain's clothing with them.
“I hadn't heard that one before. It seems every year they come up with a different way to make us ghosts,” commented Neriena. She rolled up her coat and undershirt sleeve, both salvaged from a military ship they had once captured, to expose her arm up to the shoulder. She began pointing at scars. “That one was from a knife while we were still sea pirates, that one, if you look closely, came from a pistol, and this one came from a sliver of wood that shot up when we were hit by a cannonball from a military ship.”
“What's that?” asked the pirate captain, staring at her arm in horror.
“That would be an anchor tattoo, I was a sailor,” Neriena explained, grinning at him. “Everyone had one. Surely you've heard that the captain of the first airship pirate ship was a lady.”
“It's called fools talk,” muttered the pirate captain.
“Good, then no one will believe you when you say that you met me. I like people thinking I'm dead, it makes life easier. Now we're going to lower ropes and you and your men are going to climb down them or I will shove you off of my ship through the windows. Do you understand?”
The captain understood. Once the rest of the pirate crew was off the ship, most of them were too cowed to even complain about the fact that they were being dropped off in the middle of a lake, Neriena cut the captain of the pirates free and led him to the ropes they were letting people down with. He climbed down the rope to join his men in the water without a word.
“You know, it's going to be an interesting trip the rest of the way, you've punctured the fireproof door,” Neriena told Blaze. “We're going to have to be very careful.”
“That will just make it more exciting,” said Blaze, looking happy. “You know, today is the day of the church bazaar.”
The entire ship was filled with the sound of the two laughing.