chpt#4: Everything stops for Junkie
Jack threw himself back into his large, throne-like chair at the helm, kicked his legs over the arm and reached for the clarion-vociferator. “Attention, me loves, let me have one moment of your time, please!” He cleared his throat.
“We began this quest to Pendle, feeling quite exhilarated
At the promise of new things, to be annihilated
We’ve slaked our lust for sweet things that explode in the night
And for mayhem, madness, mischief and we’ve fought the good fight
We’ve laid low all our foes before us, now they’re down on their knees
Raised a town to the ground, me loves, I’m feeling quite pleased
And you know, when I’m pleased, there’s just one thing to do
I want to hear you say it, because you are my crew
And I couldn’t wish for better, yes you’re all really quite fabulous
We’re a beautiful menagerie, of monsters every one of us
Defeated the Plunder Bus
With weapons quite wondrous
(And Archie Crim dangling like a prize catch from the mizzen mast, for me is like the butter cream icing on a very large slice of Victoria sponge – ah, delicious!)
You’ve all been, I must say, delightfully unnerving
Only one thing now, I think you’ll all agree, that we’re deserving…”
“JUUUUUUNKIEEEEEEE!” The crew exploded into a riot of whoops and cheers, suddenly the deck of the Agro was in uproar again and Skarry was forced to tighten his grip on The Witch’s arm to prevent them both being swept away in the tide of bodies racing backwards and forwards, unhitching ropes and yanking leavers, scrambling up rigging and swinging from mast to mast.
“This is INTOLERABLE! I refuse to stand for this madness!” Mercurio’s feet were suddenly swept from under him, as a dozen Persian rugs shot out from the sides of the Agro to cover the metal slats of the deck in a decadent carpet of spice-scented coloured threads.
Skarry averted his gaze and feigned a small coughing fit.
Baskets of silk and sequined cushions were emptied down from somewhere high amongst the sails and Skarry found himself dancing a strange fandango as he attempted to prevent The Witch being struck by the zabutonous rain.
The sounds of sailcloth billowing, ropes tszzzipping through pulley systems and rings, filled the air and, with startling speed, the many rolls of white and purple cloth, which Skarry had initially dismissed as redundant sails, had been released from their mast spurs and lashed together to form an elaborate canopy – rather like a large gazebo – above their heads.
As the Agro began to slowly move off along the demolished high street, with the Plunder Bus in tow, the Agronauts settled themselves in bohemian splendour amongst the cacophony of cushions and carpets and turned their attention to their captain who, all this time, had remained lounging in his chair, carefully considering his strange copper pipe. Slowly he unscrewed the bowl, shaped from a curious turquoise coloured wood, and copper shank and laid them on the arm of his chair. “All set, me loves?” he asked.
“Ring the bell, Scar.”
“Aye, captain.” Scarlet heaved on a heavy cord, which snaked up into the oblivion of fog-shrouded stars above their heads. A tiny silver chime – as if from those distant stars themselves – sang back to them. Shortly it was followed by another, and another, until it seemed that a host of tiny crickets had struck up a sudden angelic chorus amongst the sails and rigging.
Slowly, the door of one of the many cabins swung open and, in a cloud of steam and to the wild applause of the crew, there tottered, creaked, cranked, side-stepped with its head rotating, steadied itself and continued unperturbed, the most grotesque and misconstructed manikin Skarry had ever seen. He had the vague impression that it had once been one of those wind up porcelain contraptions often favoured by the nobility for performing simple household tasks such as cleaning or serving tea. Certainly, it was wheeling in front of it now a trolley piled high with an astounding array of confectionary and chinaware – but what, in the name of Wiz, had happened to it? It was plainly old and had suffered more than its fair share of deterioration and damage, but whoever had repaired it had done so in the most irrational and haphazard manner using, it seemed, a collection of scavenged junk, curios and various tawdry objects. The few sparse remnants of clothing that clung to its, presumably once female, form were not whole garments but a collection of badly cobbled yellowing lace and gaudy satin, supplemented (with little obvious strategy) by random scraps of bombazine, tweed and velvet. He stifled an involuntary urge to suggest that The Witch avert her eyes, vaguely aware that such an exclamation might make their position here even more precarious (obviously these people were all insane and it would probably take very little to offend them and find themselves treacled and feathered and dangling from the mizzen mast). For the second time that evening, he found himself glaring furiously at his sister and vehemently cursing the day she was born.
“Quit pullin’ faces John, or th’wind’ll change an’ yer’ll be stuck like it,” Scarlet snapped.
“Look, this has all been extremely entertaining,” Mercurio sneered, “but Johnny and I need to get back to Lichfield. So, if you’ll be so kind as to direct us towards the… exit… we will attempt to procure a hippo ‘ton cab and leave you good people to your… little… tea party or whatever it…”
His sentence sank beneath a wave of mocking laughter from the crew.
Jack simply smiled and shook his head. “I’m sorry, my friend,” he unscrewed the glass chamber of his pipe, shook it gently and a tiny luminescent fly stumbled out onto his palm. The insect stretched its wings sleepily, feeling the night breeze sighing softly through the canopy above. “Here aboard the Agro, we takes our responsibility to the things we pick up very seriously. Isn’t that right, me loves?”
“AYE!” The crew sniggered and Skarry shifted uncomfortably.
“Aye, indeed.” The firefly flexed its wings again and its abdomen glowed a soft lurid green. “Now we are on the dark and dangerous road to Annwn, to drop off our… friend… here and his pulverised pega’ton.” He nodded in Gabriel’s direction and the Skywayman tapped his hat in thanks.
“Much obliged, as I said, old boy.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “If we was to let you magic-masters off now, you could be ‘picked up’ by any band of unscrupulous felons.”
More raucous laughter from the crew.
“Now, now, me loves,” Jack said, idly. “That simply doesn’t bear thinking about. No. So, I advise you, my friends, to settle down, make yourselves comfortable, and enjoy the ride; you are under the protective wings of The Chronic Agro, what better place is there to be?” He blew gently on the insect’s wings and it rose into the air, circuited the gazebo a few times and finally found its way out and into the arms of the night.
“Look here,” Skarry said uncomfortably. “It’s not that we don’t appreciate all this but, really…”
“I’d advise yer t’keep yer bloody mouth shut John!” Scarlet growled.
“Wise words, indeed.” Jack mused softly, still toying with the glass chamber of his pipe. “Now then, that’s settled.” He turned to the wind-up doll, who had been waiting patiently at the mouth of the tent. “Junkie, me love, I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting. What delights have you prepared for us this evening?”
Junkie beamed – a contortion which manifested itself as a lop-sided leer – and began to awkwardly unload a plethora of floral and gilt-edged china plates, platters and cake stands, each one a perfect showcase for the minutely detailed and intricately crafted fondant creams, cakes, custards, sugared jellies, brittles, truffles and shortbreads it held.
“Oh! How delightful!” The Witch exclaimed, “Do let me give you a hand with those.” She began struggling to her feet and then froze suddenly as she found herself nose to muzzle with the end of Tam’s blunderbuss.
“How dare you!” Skarry growled, habitually directing the statement, and his threatening glare, at the nearest man – who happened to be Gideon Chase.
“Sit down, vitch voman,” Angel said, draping a protective arm around Tam’s shoulder. “Junkie duss not require your assistance.”
“Now look here!” Skarry said hotly. “The thing is obviously struggling, this lady” (He cringed at the awkwardness of having missed the appropriate moment to ask The Witch her name, but stoically refused to fall prey to social pressure and call her ‘The Witch.’ – or ‘Albert.’) “was only trying to help.”
“Let her try.” Rowland ‘The Kid’ was already working his, disconcertedly pointed teeth, around large slice of Battenberg. “Deshidedly dull at present. Wouldn’t say no to seeing an automaton have a complete emotional meltdown. Not that ‘tons have emotions. Logically. Even technologically. Impossible. Still, seeing is believing.” He swallowed a large lump of marzipan and began picking the crumbs from his beard. “I remember being personally upbraided by that mechanical monstress the night you brought her back; that was extremely amusing.”
Tam grudgingly lowered her blunderbuss and reclined back into Angel’s arms, but she kept her golden eyes fixed on The Witch, as if daring her to make one false move.
The Witch swallowed hard “B-brought her back from where?” she asked faintly.
Rowland licked his fingers and reached for a plate of pink heart-shaped wafers, “Sedgewood Hall, if I remember correctly, which I usually do. Staffordshire. Magnificent place, apparently, though I never personally got to see it on the inside, and the outside was completely covered in smoke from the fire.”
“You burnt down a residential Hall?” Skarry asked in disgust.
“No. Not us. One of those sects, you know? Now, all evidence at our disposal at the time pointed to The Precognitive Sisterhood, I’m assuming you’ve heard of them? One of the more prominent militant activist groups of our time, for all that their numbers are obviously limited they have that certain tenacity and willingness to travel which has given their cause a certain amount of widespread fame, especially in our line of enterprise; it is always expedient to know which large estates and lucrative business premises will be ‘vulnerable’ to unscrupulous looters.” He laughed nastily. “Not that ‘looting’ exhaustively defines our niche within the acquisitions industry, still, as Jack says, never turn down free tiffin.” He offered them a delicately filigreed tin-box, lined with rice paper and filled with neat cubes of crushed biscuit, compacted with syrup and covered in melted chocolate.
“Thank you.” The Witch smiled absently and popped the cube of confectionary into her mouth. Skarry held up his hand politely and shook his head.
Rowland grinned and scratched his beard. “Well, I digress. The Precognitive Sisterhood are simply another of these ridiculous factions springing up now, who think that all the problems of the world can be fixed, not by technological advancement, no! But by regressing back to a time when we didn’t have various tools and technologies at our disposal.”
Skarry frowned, “Yes, I’m aware of some of them. The Preconception Brotherhood, did some awful things back in Tintagel…”
“Hm. Idea that we’d all be better off returning to a time when babies were simply found under gooseberry bushes.”
“Yes, that is them.”
“Well, it is all tragic delusion isn’t it? My personal favourites are the Predeterminators; completely apathetic lot but wonderful to spend the afternoon with. They hope to lead by example, now that sort of activism I don’t have much of a problem with, but this Precognitive Sisterhood really get my goat.” He winked at The Witch, who stifled a polite giggle behind a mouthful of cake. Skarry continued to frown. “They are as likely to target us landships as any civilians, you know? They see the entire Tinker race as denizens of Hull; evil fiends who have corrupted the rest of humanity by introducing them to…THE COG!” He gave an affected little shudder “Pah! As if the cog hadn’t been around for thousands of years before Tinkers even emerged as a cultural group. Or, as if all undesirable effects which manifest themselves in the world around us -war, famine, drought, disease, marriage – could all be in some way linked to the discovery of the cog.” He shook his head. “So they harry the poor souls who openly embrace the technology they’ve branded ‘evil’ – Tinkers, Pirates, Skywaymen, we’ve all come under attack. Then you have the town watchmakers, inventors, smiths, ‘ton manufacturers etc. And, of course, the aristocracy who can afford to purchase the latest ‘mechanical wonder.’
“So, there you have it, poor Lady Sedgewood commissions the manufacture of a few domesticons, saving her some money in the long run she expects. Now she’s able to lay off a serving maid or two. Said serving maids make a row in the town square, crying they’re being replaced by ‘tons, what is the world coming to, etc etc. And, of course, the next thing the Lady knows, armies of naked women on horse-back are rampaging through her estate, her house is being burnt around her ears, her domesticons smashed to pieces on the front lawn, and she and the rest of her household are fleeing into the night, leaving the carcass of her ancestral home to be picked over by scavengers.”
“Waste not, want not.” The Witch muttered between mouthfuls of peppermint cream. Both Rowland and Skarry gave her a curious look.
“Yes, well… and so that is where we found Junkie. She was the only ‘ton that hadn’t been demolished beyond recognition. Very badly damaged she was, of course, almost irreparable most would say. But irreparable to your everyday craftsman is usually little more than a few sleepless nights to a Tinker. And anyway, Jack took a liking to her; ‘Look at this little treasure we’ve picked up, Kid.’ he says to me. Bah – now when Jack picks up a little treasure that’s it, we’re all stuck with the damned thing. Worse than a magpie he is.” He gestured to the opulent sea of cushions and chinaware, “Every last bit of this junk, just another curio that caught his eye, and now that we’ve got Junkie, well, it’s just an excuse to indulge himself vicariously: ‘Oh, I must have it! Oh, ain’t it pretty, me loves! Wouldn’t Junkie love this?’ Thing is…” he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and delicately peeled a truffle, shaped like a dancing figurine and wrapped in coloured foil. “Thing is, he’s right. Junkie does love it. And the worst of that is, now he’s got us all doing it.” He nodded regretfully and bit the head off the dancing lady. “Any of us. The madness can strike at any time. One moment you’re waving your crossbow under the nose of some rich merchant, when over his shoulder you spy his wife’s pretty floral cake stand with gold-gilt edge. Never mind that we’ve got two dozen of the damn things already. Of course, this one has four tiers. Four tiers? Did you ever hear of such an innovation! And you hear yourself, as in a dream, from far away, the dreaded words: “Oh, look! Wouldn’t Junkie love this?” Before you know it, you’ve incapacitated the poor man with the business end of your blunderbuss and you’re hurrying back to Aggie with nothing more to show for the escaped than a rare piece of frivolous chinaware.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Tea?”
“What? Oh, er, yes, please. Thank you.”
“You were shaying abou’ jshunkie,” The Witch reminded him, through a mouthful of clotted cream fudge.
“Oh. Well, she was badly damaged but the essentials were fairly intact, a simple wind-up mechanism operates her system, er…” he removed a pencil stub from behind his ear and felt quickly in the pockets of his waistcoat “…paper …paper? Oh, pass me one of those doilies I can sketch you a quick diagram.”
Both Skarry and The Witch made rapid indication that this was not necessary.
Rowland shrugged. “Well, anyway, I was certain I could restore her to fully operational but, heh, heh.” He scratched the place where his horns met his scalp. “She had her own ideas about that. Adamant that if anyone was going to be fixing her, it would be her!”
“And vhy not?” Angel said, indignantly. “She has her own key, she is completely self-vinding. If she is happy viz the vay she looks, the vay she is able to function, the quality of her existence, who are vee to step in and interfere?”
“It’s not that! I just cannot understand how anyone – ‘ton or otherwise – could possibly be happy going through the world in a state of less than optimal function; not when they are surrounded by Tinkers who can restore those performance levels in a blink.”
Tam kicked him in the ribs and then said something with her fingers which made him laugh and scratch his horns again.
“Yes, Tammy, I suppose you’re right. A Tinker can’t look at anything without analysing how it could be improved.”
Angel pulled a pocket-utility-tool from her belt pouch, flicked out several of the vari-shaped metal utensils (Skarry noted nail-clippers, toothpick, an oddly shaped key, eyelash curlers, tweezers, nail-file and, possibly, a thumbscrew before he gave up), selected a fine-toothed comb, and began to unbraid Tam’s hair. “Oh don’t let it vorry you, Kid. Junkie knows perfectly vell that the Tinkers could reconstruct her from scratch to any specification she cared to give them: male, female, young, old, large, small, the options are endless. But she prefers to fix herself, to be truly autonomous and the visible manifestation of all her own adventures. I think it is sveet.”
“Talking. About. Sweet. Things. Have. You. Seen. My. New. Truffle. Figurines?” Junkie’s voice was the soft whirr of bee wings and the creak of snow under boot weight. The slide of the bow amid distraction, the peculiar comfort of the familiar un-oiled hinge.
“Yesh they’re wewey nysh,” Rowland replied, cramming the last of his into his mouth and balling up the foil.
“Delightvul, but vee vere talking about you, sveetheart.” Angel told her.
If ‘tons could blush, Skarry was sure Junkie would have done so. Instead, she treated them all to another lopsided leer, which disarranged so much of her face that her eye popped out. Skarry quickly picked it up and handed it back, awkwardly.
“Thank you. You have very. gentlemanly. manners.”
“Well,” Skarry floundered, “I… er… thank you. And you… you are very… er… ler… life …ladylike, yourself. These are excellent cakes by the way, you made them all yourself?” He quickly crammed a lemon fancy into his mouth, leaving no space for any more feet.
“Yes. I put heart and soul. into. my. creations. Jack. once. said. that. even. as. a. clockwork. collection. of. junk. I. had. more. soul. than. any. of. the. painted. and. lace-lovelied. ladies. he’d. been. forced. to. share. a. teapot. with.”
Skarry swallowed his cake and smiled, “I’m sure he’s right,” he said softly, throwing a curious glance at the captain. Jack put down his teacup and winked at him.
“Have we caught any stars this evening?” he asked.
Mercurio had retreated into a corner by himself, his back resting against some wooden crates and his face obscured by shadow, Skarry was fairly sure he heard him mutter “Insane.” but he couldn’t be certain.
“Ah! The Starcatcher. Yes.” Gabriel got unsteadily to his feet. “I remember this contraption. No, no, don’t any of you trouble yourselves, I insist. It’s the least I can do for you Jack, the very least, under the circumstances, now let me see, how did this work again?” He grabbed a handful of hanging ropes and pulleys and began flapping them violently and haphazardly. “Dash, maybe that’s not it. Is that it?”
“Get away from it yer damn fool!” Scarlet growled. “Yer gonna break it like that.”
“No, no I think it’s fine, sweetheart, really…”
“Don’t you bloody ‘sweetheart’ me, give it here.” Scarlet shoved the Skywayman roughly aside and he toppled into a pile of cushions. “Damn fool,” she muttered under her breath as she deftly rearranged the ropes and began to ease two of them up and down in a rhythmic motion. This time Skarry was certain he heard Mercurio chuckle.
“Oh, how beautiful!” The Witch exclaimed. From high up amongst the sails, a large transparent disc was descending towards them, filled – it seemed – with a multitude of glowing stars, the soft luminescence of which lit the metal of the ship like silver fire. Mercurio half raised himself from his slough of self-pity and peered into the dish as it came level with the top of his head, lighting the yellow curls of his hair so that they really seemed to be spun from gold. He snorted in disgust, “Nebuflies,” and settled himself back into his sulk.
“What did y’expect?” Scarlet sneered. “Real stars? We ain’t all Magic Masters.”
“Actually, they are real stars, in a way,” The Witch mused, more to herself than anyone else. “We witches tend to look on them as the little mothers of the solar system. Each nebufly cradles in its abdomen a collection of gas and stardust which develops over the course of the nebufly’s life to form an infant star. Fascinating to watch, is the great nebufly migration at the summer solstice, when each nebulfy which has matured that year undertakes an arduous pilgrimage to the ends of the earth, which will be its death of course, but will culminate in the star being birthed into space and…”
“Ol’ wivsh tales,” Rowland scoffed, biting into a delicately crafted fondant pumpkin. A volcano of cream exploded down his chin and into his beard and he eased the worst of it off with his fingers and into his mouth. Skarry turned away in disgust. “Nonshensh, lishen; shtars aren’t born are they? Claptrap. Shtart postulating about shtarsh being born and you have to start thinking about stars dying too, see? Nonsense. If stars were dying, we’d be in a right old mess wouldn’t we? I mean, what would happen when they all died? And are you trying to tell me…” he pointed a somewhat unsteady finger at The Witch “…that a shtar has a soul? And then, where does that soul go? To some mystical eternal realm of stars? Reincarnated as another star?”
Tam said something in sign language which made The Kid chuckle and slap his metal thigh. He drained his teacup and wiped the last of the cream from his beard.
“Of course stars die.” The Witch said, hotly. It is all written in the chronicles of Ophelia Fudgeit, one of the many sacred documents preserved in the stalactite scrolls.”
“The what what?” Rowland wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “The chronicles of who? The what?”
“The chronicles of Ophelia Fudgeit; direct descendant of Amelia Manylentils and time traveler extraordinaire.”
“Ah, now, time travel, well, that’s a different topic entirely. For centuries the Tinkers have been working on this, although admittedly we haven’t quite mastered the theory of it yet, but the technology at present is looking very promising.”
“Vot a ridiculous statement.” Angel took the comb out of her mouth and began to carefully tease apart another braid. “How can you build a machine that travels in time ven you have no idea HOW to travel in time you stupid old goat?”
“Obviously, my dear, you know nothing about science,” Rowland sneered, and popped a custard cream into his mouth. “More tshee any un?”
Skarry frowned and held out his cup.
On the other side of the deck, Jack was coaxing a tiny nebufly into the glass cylinder of his pipe. He waited for the creature to shuffle down inside and then screwed the copper shaft carefully back into place. He kicked his boots over the arm of his chair once more, put the pipe to his lips and took a long pull. Plumes of lavender coloured smoke blossomed from his mouth and drifted lazily upwards to hang like dusk clouds beneath the canopy of white and purple cloth.
“Oh, er, no thank you.”
“No no no, honey. In his pipe. Designed it myself, that one. What do you think? Not bad, hm?” Rowland grinned over the rim of his teacup. “Couldn’t have him smoking a regular pipe, could we? Not with all that meths he has to drink! Can you imagine it? Fire hazard to say the least! Phew! And he wouldn’t quit, absolutely not. ‘You get our Jack, here, a pipe ‘ee can smoke.’ Bill says. So, that’s it. Absolutely ingenious contraption, even if I say so myself. You see, there’s honey in the bowl, do you see that? Honey in the bowl. The nebufly crawls into the chamber and from there it can drink away to its little heart’s content. Couple of air holes in the chamber, of course, to let it breathe. We didn’t have those at first but Jack got terribly upset at the little things dying on him every few minutes. He’s got a heart of gold, that boy – ha! Did you hear that, Tam? A heart of gold! Sorry.” Tam shook her head and made a hand gesture which even Skarry could understand. “Bah. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, it really is ingenious; no tobacco. When the nebufly’s abdomen lights up, it gives off heat which is used to vapourise a decoction, if you like, of well, whatever he fancies really. That’s coltsfoot and lavender he’s got there but you could use any herb really…”
“Decoction? You mean… you mean he’s smoking tea?”
Rowland blinked. Then grinned. “I hadn’t thought of it like that before but…yes, yes I suppose he is, ingenious isn’t it? As I said, ingenious.”
“Utter insanity.” Exactly when Mercurio had deigned to raise himself from his doldrum and sidle round so that his scathing comment could be hissed into Skarry’s unsuspecting ear hole at close range, Skarry had no idea. He nearly jumped out of skin and had to make an awkward series of, really rather admirable, manoeuvres to prevent himself catapulting the contents of his teacup all over The Witch.
Mercurio smirked and raised his eyebrows. “It’s behind you,” he said smugly.
“The point we discussed earlier.”
“Point?” Skarry hated enigma. He’d never been a man for riddles and this, he thought angrily, was certainly not the time for them. His friend seemed to think otherwise.
“The point on the path, Johnny boy, the point on the path.”
“Path? Point? Have you been sampling that meths over there?”
The wizard chuckled and closed his eyes. “Hm, let me see…the point down a certain path, after which you must officially consider yourself…”
“Astray. Yes, I remember.” Skarry said, irritably. “Well we’ve had little choice in the matter have we? And, I may remind you, whilst you are sulking and scowling and blaming all this on me, that it was your ridiculous obsession with that Wyrd Wotsit,”
“Web. That brought us out here in the first place. I don’t even know what it does.”
“It does nothing.”
“No. It’s not what it does, Johnny, it’s what it is, and as for brooding and sulking, I am heartily offended. I was merely considering our situation and,” he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “contemplating a way out of it with what we came for.” Skarry opened his mouth to protest but Mercurio put up a hand to silence him and, ignoring his friend’s scowl, continued. “And what have you been doing all this while? Changing your virtuous tune, I see.” He nodded at the teacup and slice of Victoria sponge Skarry was nursing.
“Are you seriously begrudging me this? It’s a cup of tea and a slice of cake!”
“Indeed. And where do you suppose it all came from? A rebate from The Good Folk at Her Majesty’s Revenue perhaps?”
“I believe the wind u…er…Junkie made them, actually.”
“Hm. With what?”
“With what, Johnny? Oh please don’t be so obtuse!”
“Now look here!”
The wizard laughed heartily. “I am looking! And I’m seeing a wizard, who, earlier this evening, expressed a most disheartening amount of morality, stuffing his face with contraband cake and Tramper’s Tea.”
Skarry choked and his friend laughed and slapped him on the back. “Oh, don’t worry about it, Johnny. It’s much more fun if you’ve fallen a little from that cold stone plinth of propriety you were so precariously balancing on. And, obviously, the tendency towards criminality and vice is in your blood so…”
“It is not in my blood,” Skarry growled, struggling to clear his throat of cake crumbs which now stuck like ill chosen words. “Scarlet chose to leave home and…”
“And become a pirate,” Mercurio said soberly. And then his face cracked and he shook with silent laughter again. “I’m sorry, Johnny, I am, really. It’s just so… ridiculous!”
“This whole night is ridiculous,” Skarry muttered, raising his teacup absent mindedly to his lips, before becoming aware of the action and hastily setting it down again. “Look, Scarlet left home because she was…jealous.”
“Yes.” Skarry sighed wearily and ignored his friend’s dubious smirk. “My parents weren’t rich, you know. I mean, they weren’t poor but…”
“Oh please! Spare me the family history, John. I think I’d rather be treacled to death!”
“They were fishmongers”
“Oh well, that explains the sprats then!”
“May I finish?”
“If you must.”
“They didn’t believe that girls were worth anything. Not worth investing money in anyway. All the money they had, they spent on private schooling, for me. And Scarlet…”
“Yes, yes I see it all – the Great Scarlet Skarry was not about to resign herself to gutting fish all her days. She already has a splendid Cornish accent, I imagine these rogues welcomed her with… open arms.” His sharp eyes watched Skarry shrewdly but the jibe was wasted.
Skarry rubbed his moustache and shook his head. “It’s too bad. Really. My parents won’t acknowledge they ever had a daughter, and she certainly wants nothing to do with us but I…oh I don’t know, I suppose I feel responsible.”
“Responsible?” Mercurio seemed amused again, “Really?”
“Well, of course.”
“I see. So, in this new found spirit of responsibility towards your poor wayward sister, tell me, what are you going to do about that?” He nodded meaningfully at something across the deck and Skarry turned awkwardly and craned his neck to see what was happening.
Scarlet was now wearing the Skywayman’s hat and threatening him with his own blunderbuss. Although his hands were raised above his head, the grin on Gabriel’s face told Skarry that he was in no hurry to be rescued from the predicament. Skarry frowned, “I gave up trying to intervene in Scarlet’s affairs long ago.”
“And you’re not prepared to make another attempt?”
Skarry sighed. “It’s really not worth it. She can look after herself, as you have seen. She certainly doesn’t need me to save her from a Skywayman.”
“No? You’re certain about that are you?”
Skarry took another look over his shoulder. Gabriel had managed to retrieve his weapon and was now displaying the behaviour of a man who has only two goals in mind; the first was obviously the safe retrieval of his hat, and the second he looked certain to achieve at any moment.
“That’s Scarlet for you.”
“How interesting. Just the same, if she were my sister…”
“You don’t have a sister.”
“Perhaps not, but if I did…”
“Why are you so concerned about her anyway? I thought you were planning to, you know,” he lowered his voice “get the Wyrd Web and get out of here.”
Mercurio ran a weary hand across his brow, muttered something that sounded like “obtuse” and “Wiz give me strength” and then shook his head and patted Skarry on the back. “Just drink your tea,” he said.