Disclaimer: All excerpts contain some spoilers. This is an almost-finished manuscript with more typos than the final version. I reserve the right to change things.
The Scarlet Albatross begins within days of the end of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers and covers a couple of months. During that time, the Cowry Catchers cast were doing STUFF. Part I of Jager Thunder is about what Gerard and Silveo were doing while the Albatross was sailing.
In Part II, the Albatross characters arrive. This is the first chapter of Part II and occurs immediately after the end of The Scarlet Albatross.
Chapter 1. The Honeytail
Three yellow months later, Silas Ackleby stood on the deck of his light-gas dinghy, watching as the tethering cable unspooled beneath her. The little boat, with its small internal air bladders hidden beneath a double deck, rose gently from the Anemone, then more quickly as the wind caught her wing—a type of kite-sail used sometimes on airships. She reached the end of her tethering line with a sharp tug that made Silas stagger. She hung there, slightly higher than the Anemone’s mainmast, taut against her tether, but already unstable.
Silas hurried to turn the crank for the retractable keel. It was an ugly metal fin with nothing like a keelhead figure, but it did keep the sailboat upright. Silas was proud of the keel. He’d designed the mechanism himself and installed it over a yellow month. The keel was almost as tall as the dinghy’s new mast and would have made the little boat difficult to stow aboard a waterborne ship, except that it tucked up into the dinghy’s belly when at rest.
Small light-gas boats were not ordinarily designed for complex maneuvers. They were lifeboats, meant to float gently from a stricken airship. Well-handled, they might skim along for some distance before coming to rest in the water, but they were gliders, not flyers.
On the whole, the islands of Wefrivain didn’t have much use for small flying craft, as pegasus and griffins were readily available. Winged carriages, equipped with a light-gas bladder, were also available to pull behind a winged beast. A small flying sailboat might be possible in theory, but who would want one?
Silas did. He’d torn out her lead bottom, gotten rid of her cumbersome parachute, installed a real mast, and experimented with various arrangements of sails and kites. Percival, Layjen, and the crew of the Anemone had been very patient with all this, considering they had limited stores and no certain prospects for resupply in the near future. Fortunately, materials for the tiny sailboat were mostly scrap to a ship the size of the Anemone. At least, that’s what they told Silas whenever he asked whether he might use another bit of wood or sailcloth. He’d caught a few meaningful looks between the crew and an annoyingly gentle attitude from Layjen, almost as if they felt sorry for him…as though working on the little sailboat might in any way make up for the loss of the Scarlet Albatross or ease his longing for the tranquility of poppy.
Silas tried to ignore those looks. The thought of their pity made him want to go into his cabin and never come out. It wasn’t true, in any case. Nothing could ever replace the Albatross. Silas had felt some part of himself wink out as she dropped beneath the waves. As for poppy…there were still days when the restlessness, nausea, and headache made it impossible to focus on anything.
Silas did his best to hide these symptoms when he visited Percy. Percy had his own problems. He occasionally walked about the ship now, looking pitiful and wraith-like with his empty sleeve. He’d learned to play cards with one hand—mostly, Silas suspected, in order to have something that they could do together without talking. They’d hit upon a game that employed almost pure luck. Even Silas’s preternatural card-counting skills availed him little, and so they both won about half the time. They played the game watch after watch some days, with Percy smoking poppy to ease the pain in his phantom limb, and Silas silently enjoying the second-hand smoke.
Anaroo clearly disapproved, although Silas assured her that the effects were thoroughly muted. She was pleased by his interest in the dinghy, however. She helped him in the early, tedious stages of remodeling. Anaroo was a respectable sailor, but her knowledge of airships was limited. When it came to the dangerous business of testing the dinghy—in winter rain and winds, at that—Silas wanted Gus. They had capsized the little boat twice while working on the keel high in the air. On both occasions, they’d managed to grab onto the mast or benches and had been hauled back aboard the Anemone still clinging to the tiny airship.
When at last the keel was functional, Silas wanted to take the dinghy for a solo flight. However, winter weather had intervened, and there’d been day after day of heavy rain and wind. The little airship lay battened to the deck, and Silas could only stare at it longingly.
When at last the weather cleared, the Anemone was closing in on Holovarus. There’d been ominous reports of unrest among the Small Kingdoms, with some islands treating all refugees as pirates. Anaroo, Gus, and Percy all rose up against Silas in the matter of the dinghy. It wasn’t until they made port in Holovarus and received permission to moor the Anemone to a buoy in the mouth of the harbor that Silas got another chance with his floating sailboat. That first morning in port dawned cold and windy, but delightfully clear.
Silas spoke with Percy and Layjen over breakfast and received their blessing. Gus was watching him with an uncertain expression. “You know Anaroo went back over to the Defiance this morning…?”
“Yes, I know,” said Silas as he gulped his coffee. Should I oil the springs on the rudder again? Yes, I think I should.
“Did she not ask you to come with her?”
“Yes, of course.” Silas attempted to finish an entire egg in two bites.
He chewed, took another gulp of coffee, and hoped the conversation would move on, but they were all looking at him. Silas felt his tail lash behind his chair. “They’re her friends, not mine.”
“Yes, but…” Gus seemed lost for words.
“You should go over there,” began Percy.
Silas stood up. “I’ll think about it. Right now, I’ve got a small boat to launch. Excuse me.” He could feel their stares on his back as he left the room.
Silas was almost able to forget them as he watched the tethering line unspool and then felt the solid click as the keel locked into place. He enjoyed the little sailboat more each time he took her up—learned more of what she liked, what arrangement of sails and wing kept her most steady. Of course, she still had no ballonets. If her first flight ended in the water, he supposed she would have to be hauled back aboard by hand. However, he knew she was seaworthy, and besides, he thought he could keep her aloft.
Silas adjusted the sails, wing, and rudder flaps. The tension on the tethering line eased. At last, Silas held his breath and let it fall. The little airship hung for a moment, perfectly stable in the air above the Anemone, before drifting gently upwards in a gust of wind.
Silas grinned as he scrambled to adjust the sails and rudder. A glider no more! She’s a flyer. Now she just needs a name. The little boat was far from the most stable flier he’d ever piloted, however, and he let her drift higher to give himself more room to maneuver. As he rose over the bay, Silas definitely did not look at the Defiance—no mean feat, as she was one of the largest ships in the harbor. He definitely did not check to see whether Anaroo was visible on deck. He left his telescope in his pant-leg pocket.
Her friends, not mine. He could not name the feeling that had come over him when she’d swarmed down from the crosstrees yesterday, effervescent with excitement at the unexpected gift of her ship. He was fairly certain he’d been civil, had congratulated her, certainly had not tried to stop her from jumping into a small boat and rowing over there. He’d been half-surprised that she’d returned that evening, full of stories of the Defiance’s adventures. She seemed to have bumped into any number of old friends—not just Gwain Maijha, but others, including zeds from her tribe. She was gone again at first light.
She said she would stay, but that was before… Silas shook his head. Stay where? I don’t have a ship. Those words still made his throat close up. He tried to imagine himself as a sailor aboard a waterborne vessel—someone else’s ship. He was perfectly capable, but the images fell to pieces in his mind—an impossible, gray future, devoid of airships.
I don’t have a ship, but I do have a little sailboat.
A little sailboat that won’t fly forever, whispered a voice in the back of his mind, but Silas pushed it away. He’d skirted the harbor, and the Defiance was no longer annoyingly present in his line of sight. He pulled out his telescope and examined the busy little town around the docks. He saw Holovarus castle and its outbuildings on the hill above town. He also saw a considerable number of earthworks and archers’ towers around the castle and along the coast. News travels fast. Unfortunately, I don’t think those towers will be a match for jager guns.
Holovarus Bay dropped astern as Silas followed the coastal cliffs of the island. He was impressed by the number of watchtowers he passed. He wondered what the shelts inside made of him. One rider-less griffin came out and circled his boat. Silas had a moment of anxiety, but the griffin seemed satisfied that he was not dangerous and only asked what ship he’d come from. Silas called his answer, and the griffin shot back towards the tower.
The town around the bay seemed to be the island’s only large settlement. Silas passed small fishing villages, cottages, and farms, but nothing extensive. The ocean below glistened in dazzling shades of blue and aquamarine, thick with coral. Further out, Silas could see waves breaking across white sandbars. Well, at least Holovarus will see the jagers coming, he thought. Apart from the harbor, I don’t see any place to bring in a large ship. Jagers will have to row in with small boats, and those don’t hold guns.
This impression was only reinforced as he sailed around the backside of the island. Approach here would be exceedingly difficult, with soaring wooded cliffs and waves crashing among sharp rocks far below. Silas did notice the dark blue of deep water not too far out, and he proceeded to take the little sailboat over this stretch of sea to practice maneuvers.
Overall, he was pleased, although he nearly capsized the dinghy several times. She was hyper-responsive, easy to overcorrect. Sailing her required a light touch and all his attention. Silas was shocked when he noticed the lengthening shadows and realized that it was well past noon. In his hurry to get away that morning, he’d failed to pack a lunch or even a flask of water. Silas glanced towards the rocky coastline and wondered whether he could find anyone to sell him something to eat.
He brought the boat back towards the shore in a long glide, dropping lower to have a better look. He saw cliffs, topped with pleasing meadows before deeply wooded shade. Not a sign of a shelt or even a watchtower. He did see the slender thread of a waterfall gushing over the cliff. Pulling out his telescope, he followed the track of the water to the point where it sparkled into the trees.
I could at least fill my flask. He’d worked up a thirst. Then I’ll sail her the rest of the way around the island, he decided, and be home in time for dinner. Meanwhile, it will be good to see how she anchors. He wished, fiercely and guiltily, that he had a bowl of poppy. The meadow looked like a pleasant place to sit and smoke. He wouldn’t have cared whether he had food if he’d had poppy.
Silas suspected that bringing the little airship safely to the cliff’s edge would be challenging, and he was right. There was a moment when he feared she would dive into the trees and all his problems would be finally and abruptly resolved. However, he managed to hold her steady long enough to throw the little grapple anchor into the meadow. After that, it was just a matter of reeling her in until she was riding over land and he could safely drop the rope ladder.
Silas descended with the precaution of a hawser tied to the prow and coiled over one shoulder. Upon reaching the ground, he secured this to a tree, so that his sailboat was doubly anchored and could not possibly drift away. This done, he looked around. Leafy trees were, of course, skeletons at this time of year, but the forest included many conifers, still vividly green. The long, tough sea grass rippled like golden fur in the chilly wind.
As Silas moved towards the sparkle of the stream, he caught sight of another shelt emerging from the shadows beneath the trees. Silas was pleasantly surprised to see a butterfly net sticking out of this person’s pack. The stranger—a shavier faun by the gray-blue color of his hair—waved as he approached. He was dressed in work clothes—stained shirt, rumpled brown trousers, and a battered coat and hat. Silas supposed that he himself didn’t look much more presentable. He had not expected to meet anyone. He raised his hand in return, and they arrived together at a bend in the stream.
“Good day to you!” said the stranger. Silas could see his feathered tail now. His hair made a long, thin braid down his back, presently adorned with twigs. “I was watching your airship out there beyond the cliff. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so small. You handle her beautifully.”
Silas smiled. “The dinghies aren’t designed to fly, only to glide. I’ve modified that one.” He bent to fill his flask from the stream. “Are you collecting insects?”
For answer, the stranger reached into his pocket and brought out a triangle of waxed paper. He unfolded it gently to reveal a large yellow butterfly with an exceedingly long swallowtail. The insect had earth-brown accents and beautiful eyelets on each of its four wing segments. The eyelets were a pleasing blush of soft blue-green, rose, and orange.
“Oh,” said Silas, “a Holovarus honeytail.”
“You know what it is?” asked the stranger in delight.
“Yes, I have one at…” Silas stopped. “I had one. I used to collect butterflies. But my house and collection are probably gone.” The part that was in the Albatross is certainly gone.
The stranger peered at him. “Well, I am sorry for that. I rarely meet someone who knows anything at all about insects. I myself was under the impression that the honeytail was a moth. And, indeed, it resembles one. You see the feathered antennae?”
Silas nodded at the butterfly’s beautifully feathered, golden antennae. “The older books classify it as a moth,” he admitted. “But the newer ones call it a butterfly. I think it’s one of those that fall between—some kind of skipper, perhaps.”
The stranger nodded enthusiastically. “If it’s a moth, it’s a day-flying species! I was out here for the better part of a yellow month, looking for it at night. I found all kinds of moths, but not this one. I thought they must be done for the year, but then I found a partial specimen, eaten by ants. I returned to the same spot by day, and there were honeytails! They’re at the end of their season now. They’ve laid their eggs, and they’re dying. I found this one on the ground—perfect condition. Would you like it?”
Silas was taken off-guard. “Well, I… My quarters now are quite modest, and I’m not sure where I would put—”
“Come, it doesn’t take up any room!” The stranger handed him the folded paper. “No collector should be without at least one butterfly…especially since you’ve passed through such a remote place as Holovarus. You might as well have something from your visit.”
Silas found the gesture oddly touching. He took the butterfly and tucked it into his pant-leg pocket. After a moment, he said, “I’m Silas Ackleby. I was an airship captain until a couple of yellow months ago. Now…” He gestured back towards the dinghy. “That’s all that’s left.”
Silas was grateful that the stranger did not ask for further details. “My friends call me Flag,” he said. “Ship’s clerk. I was going to eat my lunch here; would you like to join me?”
Silas glanced down at the flask of water. “I’m afraid I forgot to bring one. This is enough for now.”
“Oh, I have plenty for two!” said Flag and proceeded to spread the contents of his pack out on a rock.
Silas looked on in dismay. “I really couldn’t—”
“Nonsense! If you want to do something for me, you could take me back in your little sailboat. It’s quite a walk from here down to the harbor.”
This seemed like a reasonable trade, and Silas gratefully shared Flag’s meal of rice cakes, tasty nutbutter, and dried fruit. They talked easily of the flora and fauna of the Small Kingdoms, the scant literature on local beetles, and their concerns about what the unrest in the Great Islands might do to the College of Natural History on Mance.
By the time they stood up, Silas was feeling uncommonly friendly and at ease. He invited Flag to climb the rope ladder, which he did without balking or cringing. Clerk he might be, but he clearly knew his way around a ship, and he had a good head for heights. He sat perfectly still in the bow as Silas directed him and showed no signs of anxiety when the little sailboat heeled over too aggressively before the wind, so that Flag was obliged to cling to the bench and rail to avoid falling out. Silas made gentle corrections, which slowly brought the boat into something more near to an upright posture.
“This is her maiden flight,” he called above the wind, “although I’ve tested her extensively on a tether. Perhaps I should have mentioned that.”
Flag grinned. “It’s quite alright! What a gorgeous view!”
It certainly was. The sun was dropping towards the horizon, sending streaks of pink and gold through the clouds above the azure sea. The colors reminded Silas of the butterfly in his pocket.
“Does she have a name yet?” asked Flag. “The sailboat, I mean?”
Silas hesitated. “No. And I may not give her one.”
Flag cocked his head and waited.
Silas took a deep breath. “I don’t have a way of refueling the light-gas bladders. There’s no infrastructure for airships in the Small Kingdoms, and I have a suspicion that war among the Great Islands will destroy much of the infrastructure that previously existed there. Airships may…” He was glad of the wind, glad that he had something to do with the sails and rudder. At last, he continued, “Airships may pass out of existence…at least for the time-being. Without light-gas, this little boat will sink as the months pass. She’ll probably end her days as an ordinary rowboat. It seems foolish to name her.”
Silas was grateful that Flag did not ask the obvious question. After a moment, Silas answered it anyway. “You might reasonably wonder why I have worked so hard on her. I suppose that the answer is that I’m an airship captain at heart. I have loved them all my life, and I will keep flying them until the last piece sinks beneath my feet.”
They flew on in silence, following the forested cliffs in the light of the brilliant sunset. Presently they saw watchtowers again and a few fishing villages. Then the edge of the harbor came into view, the first of the ships’ lanterns already winking in the dusk.
“Which ship is yours?” asked Silas. “If the crew cooperates, I could throw them a rope, and you could climb down on your own deck. Otherwise, I’ll tether at the Anemone, and someone can row you across.” He looked around and saw that Flag had been drawing with a charcoal pencil in a little leather-bound journal. To Silas’s surprise, he tore out the page and handed it over.
“Light-gas was originally refined from the natural gas that seeps out of the ground in Maijha,” said Flag. “Several species of light-gas can be refined that way—one of them non-explosive. However, the explosive kind is quite easy to manufacture, as the royal engineers learned some generations ago. I’ve written one of the recipes there—iron, water, and oil of vitriol—not expensive. The trick is to capture the gas, put it where you want it, and keep it there. I’ve sketched the capture chamber as far as I remember it. Holovarus is crawling with displaced craftsmen at the moment, and I’ve already met some glassblowers capable of making it for you.”
Silas gaped at him. “Light-gas is…”
“A royal monopoly, yes. A closely-guarded secret of the Maijhan crown...which, fortunately for you, I am…more-or-less.” He smiled apologetically and held out his hand. “Flag is my name. It’s my zed name, the one I asked for when I was inducted into Kwarla-conch tribe. But it’s not my only name. I do hope you’ll forgive me for not being entirely candid. Anaroo said you might not be friendly.”
Silas was still staring. He felt a jolt of shame, as though he’d been the subject of an obvious trick. He wanted to be angry, but his mind was still spinning with the notion that he might be able to make light-gas. He was also having difficulty reconciling his mental image of the charismatic, calculating pirate of legend with the unassuming faun with the butterfly net and twigs in his hair. He was saved from having to formulate a reply by a gust of wind that tipped the little dinghy nearly on its beam ends and required all his skill and attention to bring her upright.
“Anaroo certainly thinks you’re something special,” said Flag, standing on the gunnel while clinging to a bench, “and Anaroo is not easy to impress.”
Silas gave a snort that might almost have been a laugh as he struggled with the ship’s wing.
“Watching you sail this dinghy, I’m inclined to agree with her,” continued Flag. “I don’t think many airship captains in the crescent could do it.”
“Not above ten,” muttered Silas. He wasn’t bragging. If anything, he was understating. The little boat leveled off, and they were able to stand on the deck again.
His guest made a bow. “Gwain Maijha, at your service. Anaroo is a very dear friend. She knew my mother…better than I was ever privileged to know her. I thought Anaroo had been killed chasing my dream—one of far too many friends who died that way. I cannot express my delight at finding her alive and in such good company.”
Silas still wanted to be angry, but he could not bring himself to say so.
“Name your little sailboat,” continued Gwain. “She won’t sink, at least not for lack of light-gas. May I suggest Honeytail?”
The last shreds of Silas’s reserve crumbled, and he laughed. “Honeytail…” Airships were often named after birds, and the idea of naming a small flying sailboat after a butterfly did seem perfect…especially a sailboat belonging to Silas Ackleby.
“There’s the Defiance,” said Gwain, pointing out the ship quite unnecessarily. “Might I entice you to stay for dinner? It would make Anaroo happy, and I wanted to ask you a few questions about your extraordinary journey this fall.”
Silas gave a hesitant nod.
Gwain beamed. “Excellent! I also thought… Well, I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but I wondered if you might be able to help some friends. Anaroo said you know Silveo Lamire?”
Silas was bringing the dinghy around in a gentle arc above the Defiance. “Silveo? Yes, of course.” Upon reflection, he realized that “knowing Silveo” might easily be misunderstood. “I mean, I was casually acquainted with him many years ago.” Silas glanced over his shoulder. “Is he on Holovarus? I didn’t see the Fang in port.”
Gwain sighed. “That’s the problem. But first—dinner! And then you must see my collections! I would like your opinion on some of the beetles.”
Jager Thunder will be available in 2017 (ebook and paper book early in the year, audio book later). Subscribe to my mailing list if you want to know the second it's released!