The coach pulled up next to the beautiful ship and the drones jumped out.

Winkle helped Rue to step down and she approached the dirigible reverently.

It wasn’t as big as one of Her Majesty’s mail ships but it was large. Rue suspected the gondola alone of being about the size of Dama’s town house, if the house were tipped on its side and made into the shape of a streamlined boat.

Dama said, “We took our cues from the basket homes of the balloon nomads of the Sahara and sourced an extremely light bendable wood from China for the hull.” The wood in question was a lovely golden colour. Rue stood on tiptoe to run her hand along one beam reverently.

The ship bobbed, straining against its mooring ropes, eager to take to the skies.

“May I go inside?” Rue pleaded, her golden eyes big and shining – almost a match to the exotic wood.

“Of course you may, my petal. Although you will permit one of my drones to accompany you and excuse me the pleasure?”

“Oh but Dama, she’s moored very low, can’t you…?”

“Best not to risk it, my love. Ropes can snap and then we’d suddenly be beyond the limits of my tether. I am an old vampire, little Puggle, and I did not get so old by being reckless.”

Rue nodded and in lieu of Dama, grabbed Winkle’s arm. They made their way up the creaking gangplank and onto the main deck of the ship. The open squeak decks, below the massive balloons, seemed protected enough from the helium above to not cause undue voice modification. Although Rue suspected that, in the case of a leak, the poop deck, which was raised the highest, might be a danger zone – that would make for a funny sort of command.

The navigation centre on the poop deck was made to look like an old-fashioned ship’s helm, but it was the design aesthetic rather than any indication of dated engineering. The balloon could be inflated and deflated by means of either helium or hot air, or both, depending on local resources. A paddle propeller below aft did most of the steering and propulsion with a single mainsail off the stern for use in high-floating in the aether currents. When down, the mast looked like the tail of an inquisitive cat.


Rue was only disgruntled by one thing.

“Pigeons!” She dropped a surprised Winkle’s arm and charged across the deck, waving at the roosting birds like a mad woman with her parasol. Rue had an abhorrence of pigeons. Some childhood encounter involving a stolen sausage roll was to blame. The birds squawked and flapped off. Rue in turn flapped at a nearby deckhand. “Keep them away, would you, please? Repulsive creatures.”

“Yes, miss,” said the deckhand, eyes wide at this erratic behaviour.

“I don’t like pigeons,” Rue felt compelled to explain. “And I think you’re probably supposed to call me captain.”

“Who does like pigeons, captain?” wondered the deckhand philosophically.

Belowdecks in the forecastle were crew quarters, and in the stern, officer quarters. Rue wholeheartedly approved of the lavish captain’s chambers, featuring a wardrobe with sufficient room for most of her shoes. There was a nice-looking mess and a galley which included the latest in refrigeration boxes and every possible pot and pan, even crumpet rings. Rue supported this excess – she was awfully fond of crumpets. A beautifully decorated stateroom sat across from a smoking room, down from a sickbay-meets-laboratory and a few guest berths.

The lowest deck was made up of a hold at the fore, with ample room for supplies and other necessities, and a massive chamber aft. This proved to be engineering, containing coal bunkers, boilers, and the very latest in steam engines charmingly designed to look like a bank of cheerful chubby teakettles.

Rue was not a particularly handy person. Her nature had never led her into much interest in how things worked. She felt the important thing with machines was that they did work and when they did, she appreciated it. When something broke, she identified the closest possible expert and asked them – nicely of course and with remuneration – to fix it. Thus much of what passed for mechanics, gadgets, instruments, and devices on the ship was beyond her ken. But she liked the teakettles.

“I’ll need to hire a chief engineer and navigator first,” she said, concerned with the care of the technology around her.

Winkle nodded, mouth slightly open. “I can see that you would.”

The ship already boasted a skeleton crew: a smattering of deckhands and decklings scampered above while firemen, greasers, and sooties manned the one active boiler kettle. This motley collective stood to attention at the appearance of a lady among them. Caps were doffed, awkward murmurs were made, and Rue felt guilty at having imposed herself upon them.

“Pleased to meet you all,” she said after the senior greaser had performed some bumbling introductions. “I am Lady Prudence Akeldama and I will be your captain.”

The revelation that their skipper was a female aristocrat seemed not to bother any of the young men one whit. Either someone had already warned them or they had been selected for their forward-thinking. Rue scrutinised her nascent crew more closely. Only then did she realise that the senior greaser and at least half the firemen and sooties were in fact female. She wondered where Dama had found such workers but was secretly delighted. Rue was not, to the best of her knowledge, a lover of women, but she did have a number of lady friends and enjoyed having females around. This might be because she’d been raised, mainly, by two tribes of men, one scruffy and werewolf, the other tidy and dandified. It’d be nice to go traipsing around the globe with a fair representation of the fairer sex. She could institute a proper tea-time without grumbles.

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