chpt#8: In the halls of the pirate king
Jack flung open the double doors. “We’re hooooome!” he sang cheerfully, striding into the long, dark hall, and was immediately knocked of his feet by a swarm of screaming young women who, after assuring themselves, by meticulous inspection, that he was alive and un-scathed, set him upright again and began bombarding him with questions.
Scarlet rolled her eyes “Goarn! Get out of it!” She snarled and the girls reluctantly flounced away, pouting peevish glances at her over their milk-white shoulders.
“And where the bloody ‘ell ‘ave you been? Eh?” Billy Blythe raised his head from the hand where it had been resting and viewed them with an expression nothing less than murderous. “I’ve ‘ad every ship back an accounted for bar two, Jack. Lady Grace got back hours ago wiv The Gentleman’s Relish an’ she told me what a bleedin’ state y’left Pendle in, y’bloody hooligan! An’ the Plunder Bus?” He balled his fist and winced as he pressed it to his lips and closed his eyes. “Tell me you’ve got her, Jack. Tell me you ain’t traded her for a china tea set or somefin’, please!”
“Relax, Bill. Relax, me love. All is fine. All is well,” Jack soothed, approaching the throne with confident strides. “We have The Bus, safe and sound, and Archie Crim treacled and feathered in a bird cage aboard the Agro.”
“A BIRD CAGE?!” He turned to Scarlet, “I told you to keep ‘im under control! This was a covert enterprise, Scar – your forte. Kindly explain t’me ‘ow a quiet li’l burglary can end WITH A TOWN COVERED IN ROTTIN’ FRIGGIN FISH!”
“They turned mutinous, Bill.” Scarlet spat. “Threatenin’ t’board us, they were, cannons trained an’ everythin’. Y’should’ve heard old Crim, threatenin’ to take Jack hostage an’ demand his ransom from the Pirate King!”
“He vos obviously thinking ov striking out on his own, Bill.” Angel chimed in. “Vee all heard him.” She shrugged. “So, Jack had no choice. Actually, it vos qvite amusing.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Well now.” Bill scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “G…” his flow was suddenly interrupted by squeals of delighted laughter from the back of the hall. “What the bloody Hull is goin’ on now?”
Jack peered over his shoulder, to where Colin and Max were introducing themselves to the posse of pouters.
“Oh that’s just my cousin showing off his octopus.”
“His octopus. Colin. Oh he’s adorable, Bill, tentacles and everything!”
Bill shook his head in disbelief. “Your cousin?”
“No, the octopus.”
Bill turned to Scarlet, “Does ‘is valve need changin’?”
“No Bill, he’s just being a facetious fag!” she clipped the captain smartly round the back of the head and he laughed.
“Sorry. Yes he’s my cousin. He’s just escaped from Hull.”
“Eightcups Max? The Tea Fiend?”
“Yes, I thought you would have heard of him.”
“Don’t tell me he wants to sign up? I’m not havin’ the heir to the bleedin’ throne hangin’ about, Jack, we’re heavy on the aristocracy as it is.”
“No, no. He’s on his way to a jail break Up North.”
“Good. Coz them Clockodiles are getting’ fair fat off the meat of Lady Doo-dahs comin’ wailin’ round the walls that we’ve kidnapped their abscondin’ brats. It’s not like we’re short o’ crew, or captains neiver. So, he’ll be movin’ on soon then?”
“Aye, me love.”
“That’s enough o that.”
“Urg, you wear me thin, y’know that? So Crim’s banged up, mutiny crushed. Good work then. But what took y’so bloody long t’get back?”
Scarlet rolled her eyes. “We ‘ad a parlour affair,” she muttered, “with the Skywaymen.”
“AN AFFAIR? I knew it! I bloody knew there’d be tea involved somewhere… wait a minute… the bloody Skywaymen? When, f’the love o’ gold, did they show up?”
“It is a long story, Bill. Better told over a cup of something really…” Jack looked about him hopefully, spotted the long trellis table laden with food along the right hand wall of the hall and clapped his hands together in delight.
“Hold your hippo’tons, short-shanks,” Bill growled, pointing an accusatory finger at his capricious captain, “I’m not done wiv this yet. Didger get this Wyrd Web fing?”
“THE WEB, JACK, THE BLEEDIN’ THING I SENT YOU OUT FOR!”
“Oh, that!” Jack shrugged and straightened his collar. “Of course we got it.”
Bill breathed a weary sigh of relief.
“Gabriel has it. Gabriel?”
“Hello.” The Skywayman raised a tentative hand in greeting and shuffled, nervously forwards.
Bill growled at him. “Well, where is it?”
“Right here! Right here, Bill.” The Skywayman patted his pockets frantically and fumbled inside his waistcoat. “It’s alright, really, no need to er… panic… ah! There.” He pulled a cone of grey yarn from beneath his shirt and flourished it triumphantly.
“Oh, that’s not Wyrd Web,” The Witch said, matter of factly.
Bill, his hand extended expectantly to receive the yarn, turned his head slowly and glared at her. “Wot?”
“That.” The Witch pointed to the yarn in Gabriel’s hand. “That’s not Wyrd Web at all. Nothing like it. That is just ordinary knitting wool.”
Bill was turning purple. “And ‘ow would you know…Miss?”
“Mrs., actually.” The Witch did a little bob-curtsey. “Mrs. Albert Baker. I’m the Last Witch Of Pendle. It’s my Wyrd Web that everyone seems so eager to lay their hands on, although I can’t honestly think why, I mean, it’s not as if anyone can use it anymore, is it? Not for real magic anyway, you’d need the goddess and, well, since Wiz has banished her to the spiritual realm, it seems to me that her power would have gone too. Doesn’t that seem logical to you? Oh, I’m not saying that aether-sugars (such a quaint term I’ve always thought) no longer congeal and connect matter to matter, of course they must – such a charming book, Sallis in Plunderland, what a shame the queen didn’t agree and they all had to be burnt, poor old Dodge, did you ever meet him? I never personally had the privilege but I’ve always thought he must be a most intelligent and interesting gentleman -but, as I was saying, for us to be able to manipulate them the way the ancients used to I really don’t think it is po…”
“I COULDN’T GIVE A BLEEDIN’ RAT’S!” Bill bellowed. “GABRIEL!”
The Skywayman looked as if he was about to faint. “I…I’m as perplexed as you are, Bill. Really. Shocked. I stole this from Scar earlier, honestly I did! If anyone’s to blame, she is!”
Scarlet stormed forwards, snatched the yarn from Gabriel’s hand, looked at it, and then punched him square on the jaw. He fell backwards and Rowland stepped neatly out of the way, allowing him to crack his head on the wooden floor.
“This ain’t the thing I took,” Scarlet fumed. “The thing I took was silver, Bill, not grey.” She glared at the king defiantly, her chest heaving and the pupil of her eye-spider blazing red and gold.
Jack nudged the fallen Skywayman in the ribs with the toe of his boot. Gabriel groaned. “If you are presumin’ to impugn the skill and integrity of my first mate,” he crouched down on his haunches and whispered something Skarry could not hear.
“Alright, Jack, alright.” Bill wiped a hand across his face and tugged on his lower lip. “Yeah, alright Scar, I believe ya.” He turned to Biddie, “You, Bones, get this wretch banged up where I can see ‘im.”
“Aye, Bill!” Biddy stalked over to a large winch on the wall, released the holding mechanism and began to turn the large spoked wheel. A terrific grating, groaning sound from above their heads, heralded the descent of a large iron cage, into which Rowland and Albert unceremoniously flung the semi-conscious Skywayman.
“So wot do we bleedin’ do now?” Bill sat down again, rested his elbows upon his knees, and glared expectantly at them all.
Tam signed something which Skarry couldn’t understand and Bill shook his head.
“Nobody’s torturin’ anyone.”
Tam looked disgruntled and Angel put her arms around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.
Jack stood up and looked thoughtfully at Mercurio, then shook his head, put his hands on his hips and turned his attention towards the table.
“It would really help if I knew why you are all so heart’s-set upon getting the web” The Witch said stoically “If I knew what it was you were trying to achieve, I might know a way to do it without the web.”
“We need the web to give to Ashton.” Bill said simply “Lord Ashton over at Lancaster. He’s a Land Lord, not one of the Teatime set, you’ve most probably heard of him on account of all the strange inventions he has comin out of there. He commissioned us to get it, why he wants it, Wiz only knows -or rather I suspect he don’t – but the point is, he’ll pay on delivery and what we don’t have we can’t deliver.”
The Witch screwed up her face thoughtfully “But if you tell him it doesn’t work… but you’ll be able to get him something that will…”
“Aye. Possibly. But we don’t know what ee wants it for do we?” Bill snapped, his temper rising.
“Portals.” The word shot almost involuntarily from Mercurio’s lips and Skarry’s eyes weren’t the only pair that turned to stare at him incredulously. The wizard didn’t blush, but a subtle rose bloomed deep beneath his pale skin and Skarry thought he heard him curse himself under his breath.
“Ah, portals? Perhaps. Well, definitely, I should say. I suspect that Lord Ashton has heard the, obviously now false, rumour that Wyrd Web can be manipulated to open a portal in the aether, for example to allow travel between one realm and another. Or… or… time, you know, time travel, things like that. I mean, Wyrd Web, just how many uses can it possibly have? So, if Mrs. Baker here could tell us of a way to open portals in the aether without using Wyrd Web, we could… I mean you could, pass that information to Ashton instead and still claim your bounty, so to speak.”
Bill had begun to frown, now he was positively glaring. “Oo are you exactly?”
“Me? Oh, no one of consequence. Friend of the family, in a round about sort of a way. This is Miss Skarry’s brother.”
“And just where the bloody Hull did yous two spring from?”
“Oh, well, it’s quite an amusing story really…”
“That’s right!” Jack interjected loudly “Very amusing. They was visiting their friend here, The Witch, when we showed up and took them all hostage, imagine that!”
“I fought you witches n wizards didn’t get on?” Bill frowned.
Skarry frowned too. He’d learnt enough about this strange fish to know that he had certain inexplicable leanings towards philanthropy but why he was choosing to exercise these on behalf of his erstwhile prisoners, Skarry couldn’t guess. He smelled a rat lurking somewhere and determined to discover it as soon as possible.
“Well, you know how it is, Bill, like us and the Skywaymen I expect…”
“Yeah. An’ next time you decide t’go skippin’ off to Annwn for a tea party you get my say so first, got it?”
“Loud and clear, me love.”
“That’s enough o’ that n’all. An’ don’t go thinkin’ that just coz someone’s got a bit of blood in ‘em that means you’ve gotta invite ‘em back here neiver. Cousins, brothers, what next yer aunt Vic? All that glims, Jack, I’m not runnin’ a bleedin’ tiffin den y’know?”
“Oh yes, I know. It was just a strange sort of evening. And morning. Really.”
“It always bleedin’ well is wiv you.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“Be sure it don’t.” The pirate king ran a tattooed hand over his shaven head and dragged it down over his weather-beaten face to scratch at his grey stubbled chin. “What a bloody mess,” he sighed. “Right. Where’s the captain’s log?”
“Right ‘ere guv!” the little scrapper piped cheerfully.
“Good. You turned in your report yet?”
“Right, go off upstairs an tell Miss Jemima you’re all back in one piece.”
“Sir!” The lad took the stairs up to the throne at a pace and disappeared behind a faded red curtain.
“Right then, yous lot can go an’ get your oats.”
There were muted mutterings of appreciation and the crew moved off towards the tea table.
“Not yous three.” Bill pointed a fat finger at The Witch and wizards. “I want words with yous lot, here.” He gestured to a cluster of wooden chairs on the stage beside the throne and, casting uncertain glances at each other, the magic users ascended the stone steps. Skarry made to offer the first chair to The Witch but, to his utter amazement, Mercurio beat him to it. Skarry cast him a questioning glance but his friend simply smiled enigmatically and seated himself.
“You first.” Bill leaned in towards Skarry and fixed him with grey eyes that were hard, if not entirely cold. “Skarry, right?”
“Jonathan Skarry, Sir. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Aye. Likewise. Jack tells me you’re our Scarlet’s brother, that right?”
“Course it’s right,” Bill growled menacingly. “Look ere, our Jack might be a lot of fings. He might be a lot of fings some folk don’t like. But a liar ain’t one of ‘em.”
“Right, er, if you say so.” Despite the fact that the captain had actually manipulated the truth only moments before, Skarry could see no profit for any of them in contradicting this point. He decided to remain non-committal on the subject until he could fathom exactly what was going on. If that was possible. He was beginning to think that nobody here had any clue what was going on at all and that these people simply lived their lives plunging from one calamitous escapade to another, breaking sporadically to take tea or to burst into song.
“I do say so. So, I don’t wanna know how you’ve pulled the wool over his eyes. Right? Jack’s a good lad, he’s shrewd as far as that can getcher, but he’s also got a big heart. I should know, I’ve got the damn thing locked up in my treasure house.”
“I see.” Skarry struggled not to grimace.
“And a man wiv a big heart gets taken for a fool more times than he ought. Now I’m sayin nuffin’ to him about it, and neiver are yous. But I’ve got family, same as you, an if my sister run off and joined a band of relentless rogues, I’d wanna know she was safe, same as you. And, same as you, I might concoct some cock n bull story about a friendly witch so’s I could ascertain that information. Are we talkin’ here?”
“Er, yes. Well, you are talking and I am listening.”
“Good.” The pirate king took a long moment to glare at Skarry, who held his gaze stoically until Bill seemed satisfied. “And you can see for yerself that she’s more than fine and more than bein’ taken care of. Right? Right. There’s no better ship in my fleet than The Agro, no finer crew than the Agronauts, no better captain than Jack Diamond, an’ no better lass t’keep ‘em all in check than Miss. Scarlet Skarry. So, y’ve got all the news y’came for. Yous can take yer tea an’ get on yer way, an’ I don’t expect t’see your face, or any bearin’ a family resemblance to it, round my walls again -get me?”
“Good man.” Bill sighed heavily and turned to stare at his crew who were all gathered around the tea table observing Colin’s antics as he revelled in the new found freedom granted him by the miraculous set of ‘gill goggles’ now attached to the sides of his head. “ADELE!” Bill bellowed suddenly. “Here. Now.”
The girl, who had been trying to feed Colin a slice of cream filled sponge, disentangled herself reluctantly from his tentacles and stomped sulkily over to the throne. She didn’t ascend the steps but folded her arms petulantly and glared at the pirate king.
“Don’t gi’ me that sulky sue look, you know what I’m gonna say.”
The girl continued to glare.
“I want yous, and your sisters, t’keep away from that Hullian an’ his flamin’ octopus, right?”
The girl opened her mouth to argue, thought better of it, and settled for a ridiculously dramatic pout.
“Don’t gi’ me that lip, neiver. I’ve said wot I’m gonna say an I ain’t sayin no more about it. Go on.”
Adele flounced back to the tea table and Skarry noted rather a lot of muttering, punctuated by the occasional peel of indignation and sporadic venomous glance in the direction of the throne, after which the little group of young women drifted slowly up to the other end of the table and seated themselves in a coven-like arrangement, still obviously spitting daggers.
Bill watched them suspiciously for a while and then scratched his chin. “Kids,” he said wearily. “My advice, don’t ‘ave em. Specially daughters. I ‘ad a full head o’ hair an’ a fine black beard at one point. All fell out overnight.”
“Oh, are they all yours?” The Witch asked enthusiastically “How lovely! You must be so proud!”
“Aye, all thirteen of ‘em. An no it ain’t and yes I am, ‘tho Wiz knows why; they do nuffin’ to earn it.”
He continued to glare at the tea table. “That thing’s a pest.”
“Oh, no, he’s adorable! He’s only acting like that because he’s been cooped up in a diver’s helmet for weeks. He just needs to stretch his tentacles a bit, that’s all.”
Bill looked at The Witch as though she was deranged. “Not the thing on eight legs, it’s the thing with two legs, I’m on about.” He frowned pensively and scratched his grey stubbled chin.“So, tell me about these portals.”
“Well, yes what Mr. Smith here says is perfectly true, Wyrd Web can be used, or rather could have been used, to open portals in the aether. And I think it very likely that this Lord Ashton could have had that purpose in mind when he asked you to procure it. Although of course to be sure you would have to ask him. Now, what I would propose is this; I am fairly certain, drawing on the little knowledge I have of what is written in the stalactite scrolls, that there are several other ways of doing this. I suspect they may involve stars, possibly something to do with the nebufly migrations and the clustering of energy pools… I’m sorry that’s all very vague I know…”
“SOUP! Yes I know, you can’t believe it can you? Cold seaweed soup! Awful, nay, absolutely abominable stuff, putrid, after a fashion. They steep the seaweed in cold water for eighteen months, under the pressure of enormous chunks of bedrock and…”
“Yeah, you. Come ‘ere. I’m tryin’ to talk to this witch an all I can hear is you prolificatin’ about friggin’ seaweed soup. Now take your bleedin octopus off my table an sit down there where I can keep an eye on you both. Bloody pests the pair of yer.”
“Really?” Max’s purple eyes became round with contrition and Bill’s ferocious aspect softened slightly from turbulent to overcast.
“Look,” he said wearily, “just sit down quiet over there and don’t make a nuisance of yerselves, alright? Is that too much t’bleedin well ask? Now then,” he turned back to The Witch, “about this soup, I mean, web…”
“Well, yes, as I was saying, the scrolls you know are not specific about opening portals, no one has ever tried to mess with that sort of thing before except Wiz. And of course we can’t just waltz along to his palace and confront him, because nobody knows where he is.”
Skarry refrained from expressing his thoughts that ‘because nobody knows where he is’ was the very last in a long list of reasons not to ‘waltz in and confront’ the supreme ruler of the universe and demand his knowledge about opening and closing dimensional portals.
“But there must be another way, you must surely be able to make an educated guess?” Mercurio sounded almost frantic “think, think! What were you saying about stars?”
“Well, yes, possibly. There might be something in that…”
“What about the soup seers?”
“WOT?! I thought I told you, I don’t wanna hear anymore words about your bloody seaweed soup! I’m tellin yer, if I ‘ad a pot of the stuff right now, I’d bleedin well drown you in it! Both of yous!”
“Oh no, you can’t drown Colin. Colin is an octopus.”
“He’ll be bleedin calamari by the time I’m done wiv him!”
“The soup seers?” The Witch mused thoughtfully “Why yes! You clever old thing! Of course the soup seers would know wouldn’t they!”
“Now don’t you start, I’ve had just about as much soup as I can take.”
“No no, please. The Siberian soup seers, you know, from the musical of Amelia Manylentils.”
“Did someone say Amelia?”
Bill put his head in his hands, Mercurio scowled and gritted his teeth and Skarry stiffened slightly as the entire hall burst suddenly into song:
“AMELIA, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? THE FIRST LOCOMOTIVE STEAM MAAAAAACHIIIIINE!
IT WAS A QUITE FANTASTICAL
NEVER BEFORE BEEN SEEN
CREAM POWERED TRAIN MACHINE!”
“Now see wot you’ve bleedin well done!” Bill bellowed above the din, thrusting an accusatory finger at Max who shrugged innocently. “Never, ever, mention Amelia!”
The song ended in uproar with superfluous back slapping and cheering which dwindled finally into a debate about when the next outing to the Garish Theatre ought to be arranged.
“Thank you very bleedin bloody much!” Bill grumbled “One more riot out of you and, heir to the throne or not, I’m feedin’ you to them Clockodiles.”
“He is right though!” The Witch exclaimed enthusiastically. “Of course the Siberian soup seers would know how to open portals in the aether, they spend their entire lives staring into the void, they know absolutely everything about everything!”
“But…” Mercurio took a moment to master his incredulity. “Surely, my dear, the soup seers are…well…not actually…I mean the Ballad of Amelia Manylentils is just a myth. And the musical has elaborated upon it to epic proportions. Travelling time machines? Flying rocking chairs? I’m sorry but it just isn’t possible. And as for the proposition that there exists some lost tribe of druidic mystics, cosseted away in the frozen Siberian wastes who spend all their days peering studiously into bowls of thousand year old soup! It is simply ludicrous!”
“What my friend means,” Skarry said quickly, seeing the injured look on The Witch’s face, “is that, possibly, the writers of that musical may have embellished the truth a little. You know, they are wont to exercise a touch of artistic license in order to make their tales more dramatic.”
“But you don’t understand!” The Witch persisted. “All that nonsense about Amelia inventing automatons and steam engines is of course… nonsense, but, as is often the case with nonsense, it veils a hidden truth. Amelia really did travel to Siberia and she really did meet the seers, it is all documented in the scrolls.”
“Colin believes you” Max whispered and The Witch smiled gratefully and stretched out a hand to tickle Colin’s tentacles.
Bill sighed. “I’ve heard stranger things,” he said slowly, and Skarry couldn’t prevent his eyebrows from rising slightly. “And I’ve given the go ahead to plans almost as ludicrous.” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “How would you get there though? That’s the question.”
“Well, there’s only one landship in your fleet that can cross terrain as treacherous as the once-was-sea, and that’s The Chronic Agro.”
“Aye, an only Jack would be mad-cap enough to attempt it anyroad… OI! I thought I told yous to keep your trap shut!”
“Right. You will be. Still, you are right. Though I’m loath t’risk it.”
“How much is Ashton offering you?” The Witch asked.
Bill’s face darkened dangerously, “the world,” he said simply. “The whole bleedin’ world, that’s all you need to know.”
Skarry drew a deep breath and his brow furrowed, this was all getting decidedly thick. It was one thing to begin an evening with a little breaking and entering, quite another to now be talking about crossing uncharted portions of the globe in search of mythical lunatics in the company of very, very real ones, and something in the ominous tone of Bill’s voice and the heavy shadows that crept into the dark creases of weather-browned skin around his eyes made Skarry feel as though an enormous yolk had been placed around his neck. He straightened his shoulders uncomfortably and unconsciously balled his fists upon his knees. He glanced at his friend and was not surprised to see that the glimmer of greed in his eyes had now swelled to a feverish luminescence. Despite his overt reservations about the existence of these seers, he was obviously going to lock-talons on any attempt to find a way of opening these aether portals. Exactly why he was Hull-bent upon it, Skarry neither knew nor cared, but he made a conscious decision then and there to get both of them back to Lichfield as quickly as possible, and Mercurio to a psychiatric practitioner.
“I see,” the Witch said grimly. “Then it would seem you have no other choice.”
“But… but there must be another way!” Mercurio persisted. “What if we get there, and there are no soup seers? What am I saying? Of course there are no soup seers! And what if we never get there? What if we die? Die, mired in the once-was-sea or… or eaten by marsh crabs… or giant Albatross? Or what if we all get salt blindness? Or…”
“We?” Bill glared at the wizard. “There’s no ‘we’ about it. Yous lot can take yer tea and sling yer hook. It’s not a pleasure voyage we’re plannin’ here.”
“Oh but you’ll need us!” The Witch cried “You don’t know anything about the soup seers or where to find them or what to ask them, and… well, do any of your crew speak Nenets? We’ll need an interpreter, of course.”
“You’re tellin me you speak this Nets? What is that, Siberian?”
“A form of Siberian yes. I do not speak it myself, but this gentleman does.” She pointed at Skarry who choked, spluttered, turned puce and generally made a shocking bad job of convincing anyone that this could possibly be true.
“That true?” Bill growled.
“I er well, not a little, that is to say, well”
“Can you or can’t you?”
“I can honestly say that if a Siberian soup seer were here now, Mr. Skarry would certainly be able to listen to what he had to say and give us an interpretation. Isn’t that right Mr. Skarry?”
“Well, that is true, however.”
“This is not the time for modesty,” the witch said firmly. “Two magic masters with a knowledge of portals and one who is able to communicate with the soup seers would be nothing but an asset to this, let’s be frank, otherwise completely doomed expedition.”
“But, please!” Mercurio was almost on his knees. “This is utterly ridiculous, will you not just stop, for one moment and consider…”
“He don’t even want to go,” Bill said, jerking his thumb at the wizard who regained his composure instantly.
“Well I didn’t say that, exactly. Of course I am more than willing to help in any way I can with this fascinating little problem you have. If my expertise in magical knowledge can in any way be of assistance to you then I most humbly put them at your disposal. I simply think it would be wise to consider whether there is another way. That is all. And I am not yet wholly convinced that these soup seers even exist.”
“Oh they do exist. I can prove it to you!” The Witch said ardently.
“And how exactly do you propose to do that? I have already endured the farcical cirque de dreadful once.”
“Well, when we get to Siberia you will see, won’t you?” The Witch said, as if that closed the letter and sealed it.
Skarry was still in shock. His mind floundered from octopi to giant land crabs, from singing pirates to methylated mishaps. How had this happened? How had he possibly agreed to, what he thought was, a convivial night on the town with a new chum, and ended up being press-ganged into the crew of a landship bound for Siberia?
Bill was chewing his fingernails. Or what he had left of them. “Can’t do it,” he muttered. “You sure there’s no other way?”
“Positive,” The Witch said firmly. “If you absolutely must supply Ashton with what he needs, and if what he needs is what we suspect, then this is the only way to guarantee that you will get it.”
Bill stared across the room at his captain, who had somehow become engulfed by the coven.
“There’s no one else who could do it,” he said slowly, tugging at his lower lip as he spoke. “And it’s gotta be done.”
“You really care about them all, don’t you?” The Witch said, sympathetically.
“Care about ‘em? Care about ‘em? There’s not a man or woman in my fleet who ain’t given me a treasured part o’ themselves just for the privilege of servin’ on one o’ my landships. That’s the devotion I expect from my crews an’ that’s the devotion they get from me in return. I’d die for every last bleedin one of ‘em and it’s no small matter t’be talkin’ about sendin’ the very best of ‘em across the uncharted globe on the whim of some pot-sot witch.” He ran a hand over his face again. “Look, I don’t mean no offence. I know you’re tryin’ t’help an’ I appreciate it. Really do. But you can’t understand wot it’s like – watchin’ em come in here, give their speeches about why they wanna join up. Keepin’ cold while the tinkers cut off their limbs an’ graft on new ones, listen to ‘em screamin’ in agony… heh,” he grinned suddenly and Skarry grimaced. “You shoulda seen your Scarlet there. She walks in ‘ere, barely sixteen she were, “Make me a pirate,” she says, just like that.
“Oh aye,” I says, “And what’s a dainty little scrap like you gonna give to become one?”
“I’ll give me right eye,” she says, an ‘for any of us knows what’s happenin’, she whips out her own fish knife and guts it out of her head as though it were cod innards! An’ she don’t stop there! Chucks it down on the floor at my feet and stands there, blood streamin’ down er face, hands on hips,” he chuckled heartily and wiped a tear from his cheek, “and glaring at me with the bloody good one! Then she faints clean away and I had the tinkers fix her up with a patch – coz normally, you know, we let ‘em stew down in the cells for a bit while the tinkers make up the prosthetic part for ‘em, only fair innit? Gives ‘em a chance to reconsider an bail out if they changes their mind. But I had ‘em make a real nice piece for ‘er. Them jewels she’s got there are from the crown treasury, I was hoardin’ ’em up for meself but, well, she deserves ‘em.”
Skarry thought he was going to be sick.
“Yep, Scarlet and Jack are somethin’ else. The best. My best. I don’t wanna lose ‘em.”
“Yes, I can see why you feel that way,” The Witch mused, “Miss Skarry is obviously fiercely devoted to the clockwork throne, and the captain gave… gave his heart, is that right?”
“Aye,” Bill growled. “An’ before you goes jumpin’ to any conclusions about that, I can tell you two things straight an’ clear – firstly, I’m a happily married man with thirteen kids t’prove it an’ second I did all I bloody could t’talk the daft cockscomb out of it. Alright?”
“Oh I didn’t mean any offence!” The Witch cried hastily. “Honestly not, I think it’s, well, I think it’s rather… sweet.”
“Well,” The Witch blushed slightly, “he is rather… well, I mean he is rather…”
“He’s a good sound bloke. He’s a good sound captain. An’ he’s a good sound pain the bleedin’ neck,” Bill growled. He scratched the back of his head. “But he’s not a pest. He don’t pester no one for nothin’. So he’s alright by me.” He sighed heavily. “I’d not be without im, truth be told, but it was a bad business all that.” He shook his head and smiled slightly. “He marched in here one morning like the duke o’ bloody Devon.”
“Well he will be when his father dies,” Max muttered, but Bill seemed to be lost in his own memories.
“Not long before Scar came, as it goes. Comes in here he does, looks about him, straightens his collar, I’ll never forget it as long as I live, then he falls down on his knees an starts spoutin’ bleedin poetry! I tell yer, I nearly had him hauled out by the ankles an’ fed to the clocks! I’m the bleedin pirate king, I can’t have some dainty doily comin’ in here proclaimin’ his undyin’ love for me, declarin’ to the whole bleedin’ city that he’s loved me ever since he saw me on board the landship that attacked his aunt’s palace and how he swore that day that when he became a man, the first thing he’d do was come up here to the clockwork city in London and devote his life to me… it was bleedin’ embarrassing!”
“So why didn’t you?” Mercurio sounded bored.
“Feed him to these… Clockodile things?”
“Ah, well. I would. An’ some days I bleedin’ well wish I had. But Miss Jemima was here that day, y’see. And yous, who’ve spent a day and a night with that bloody rogue, will know by now that it’s a bleedin shame he is the way he is, coz there ain’t a woman alive that don’t fall head over heels for that wretch the minute she claps eyes on him. So, Miss. Jemima thinks he’s adorable, she thinks he’s like a puppy, she thinks he’s the sweetest thing since lemonade and if I wanna keep on her good side – and believe me I do – I’ll give the lad a chance. “If he wants to give you his heart, you should let him Bill.” Grrr. She has a way of saying ‘Bill’ that makes it sound like ‘if you know what’s good for yer.’
“Right,” I says. “Welcome to the clockwork city. Let Rowland here escort you to the guest suit whilst I have my tinkers make you a replacement heart.” And I packed him off to the cells.
“Six bleedin months he was down there, on ration. I was hopin’, see, that he’d come to his senses; them cells are Hull holes, every one of ’em; no light, no company but the rats, and naught but wormy oatcakes an’ water. But y’know what? He just sat there, takin’ it all in. I told the guards not t’speak to him. Every day they brought his meals and he’d ask “Any news?” they’d just shake their heads an leave. I won’t lie to yer, I thought about that poor sod every day he was down there an’ you know wot? He started to grow on me. There’s many a cove who’ll spend two days in the cells and be sent home blubbin’. Coves who look tough n all. I started to get the idea that he weren’t such a wet napkin as he looked. An I started to get the idea that he really meant what he’d said n all. Now I could tell you a story about me an Miss Jemima, but we’d be here all night. Suffice to say that I know what it is to love someone an’ be prepared to go to Hull and back for that.”
Max shifted in his chair and Bill looked at him sharply “Aye well, maybe I’m not the only one. But it got me thinkin, and I started to respect the kid. Oh I couldn’t never love im back, I’m not that way inclined and never will be. But, as the Good Lady says, (I call er that, y’know, it’s like The Good Folk; nothin’ good about ’em but you don’t wanna risk the consequences of speakin’ ill of ’em) she says: ‘The essence of true love is true friendship. Never scorn true friendship, Bill, for it is a rare treasure, sought after by many and attained by very few.’ An she’s right. Though don’t ever tell er I said it.
Anyway it was a right old mess, when it came to it. he lost so much blood I thought he’d never pull through. In the end the tinkers, bleedin’ marvels they are and no mistake, rigged up this set of tubing to replace it, but they had to use pigeon’s blood, from the squawks up on the roof.” He chuckled, but Skarry noticed that his eyes were rimmed red. “We all reckon that’s why he struts. He does strut, don’t he? Look, you watch ‘im. Jack! Oi, come ‘ere.” The captain looked up, bemused, and came slowly over to the throne.
“There. See. Right, go on y’can get back t’your preenin’ now, Peacock.”
Jack grinned and shrugged and definitely strutted back to the tea table.
“So. I made him captain straight off after that. And Aggie, she’d been off the road waitin’ for a crew. Seemed like they was made for each other.”
“Fascinating as all this nostalgia is…” the taut tendon of Mercurio’s pitch betrayed beyond his control the height of his agitation. “…perhaps we could return to the matter in hand, which is whether or not this expedition is both feasible and, indeed, necessary?”
“Look, this is all getting a bit thick isn’t it? I mean, Ameli…er…the whole rocking chair / soup thing. When I said about the soup seers, well, I wasn’t really serious. That is, I didn’t realise… well, I didn’t know you’d actually consider sending… Jack… I mean, look I didn’t know all this, this is all news and revelation to me. He never said. How was I supposed to know? And anyway, you can’t put any stock and store by the word of an octopus wielding tea fiend from Hull. That’s just ludicrous. I’m not accustomed to having my words taken seriously so you can’t expect me to be responsible for the things I say. Just, you know, dismiss them like everyone else does. It’s probably all rot anyhow.”
The Witch looked at him sternly. “Do not try to backtrack now,” she said firmly. “Do not presume to interfere in higher matters of which your understanding is obviously limited. We are merely pawns, all of us. Surely you understand that by now? The plans are laid and the game must go on.”
“I er don’t understand what you mean…”
“Oh I think you do.”
Skarry looked at them both suspiciously but Bill seemed not to have noticed the oddly meaningful exchange. He continued to gaze thoughtfully at his captain.
“We’re gettin ahead of ourselves,” he said wearily. “I’d better send a drone over to Ashton and see what he has to say about it.” He turned to the others, “Look, take some tea, ‘ave a rest. This could take a while.” Then he rose from the throne and strode the length of the hall, calling to Jack as he passed him, who hurriedly downed his cup of tea and followed him out through the double doors.
“Do you mind telling me exactly what is going on here?” Skarry’s question was directed at no one in particular, but the fact that all three of his companions opened their mouths to speak confirmed his suspicions that there were at least two, if not three, agendas in play here, none of which he was a party to. “Exactly!” he spat. “Very well then, as Bill says we ‘have a while,’ you first.” He pointed to Mercurio who threw his hands in the air in a dramatic gesture of resignation.
“Oh, very well. You know I was going to tell you anyway, only the opportunity has not, so far, presented itself. This Lord Ashton is…well, let us say he is an old friend of my family. A friend of my uncle, specifically.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully and Skarry recalled that the only reason Mercurio had been allowed to enter the Towers Of Wizardry, despite officially failing his assessments, was because his uncle was the head of one of those towers.
“Yes. Ashton contacted him a short while ago, asking if he could assist him in finding a way to open portals in the aether. Oh, he gave some feeble reason about making safe travel possible from one city to another for select individuals of governmental importance, but my uncle suspected he had less noble aspirations in mind and, being the soul of morality that he is, he refused to be of assistance.”
Skarry frowned. “So you offered your own services.”
“I certainly did! The man’s a fool. A doddard. An opportunity like this comes but once in a lifetime, of course I seized upon it. Who wouldn’t? I spent days and nights researching until I came across this Wyrd Web. Only The Witches had ever held the secret of unravelling Wyrd Web from the aether. They used it to manipulate fate, of course, but Wiz obviously saw its other potentials and so did I. I discovered that the only witch still practicing in the New World was the baker’s wife in Pendle… and of course, the rest you know. Once I obtained the web I was to deliver it to Ashton and together we would work on opening the portal. However,” he grimaced.
“However it seems that Ashton double crossed you,” The Witch said thoughtfully.
“Or was simply hedging his bets?” Max added. “I know I would. By sending not only a wizard, but also the pirates and the Skywaymen after the thing, he was almost guaranteed to get it somehow. Cast your net wide and haul in a greater catch, as they say.”
“And what is your part in all this?” Skarry asked sternly. “You’ve been locked away in Hull for, Wiz knows how long. And then you just happen to turn up in Annwn on the night your cousin declares an affair with the Skywaymen?”
Max shrugged, “A happy coincidence.”
“Yes, I’m sure he thinks the same. But my Latin is much better than his, and my brain less addled. It seems to me that your, seemingly innocent, yelling of the word ‘soup’ at the inopportune moment, taken in consideration with the facts that it was you who proceeded to lead us down the Manylentils route and also you who was the first to so adamantly state that only Jack and the Agro could succeed on such a quest, indicate that it was by no means coincidental. I don’t pretend to know what is going on in your therezine-sotted mind, but I do know that something is going on!”
“Well, the cogs of your own grey matter must be whirring at a most alarming rate. I honestly have no idea what you are talking about. In fact, you seem to have conveniently overlooked the fact that it was also me who just tried to talk Bill out of this ludicrous mission.”
“The fact that you may, possibly, have experienced a change of heart after hearing that very touching story about your cousin’s ordeal, does not change the fact that you initially intended for him to go on this voyage.”
“And why would I want to do that?”
“Your own words. ‘Etributionaris si os eetswensi’ – Retribution is so sweet’.”
“The words of that song were written many years ago.”
“I’ve no doubt they were, that is not to say they could not be altered slightly in order to mock the one you feel has wronged you in some way. One who you know is not likely to be able to interpret what you are saying and can barely remember the original words anyway.”
“Well, you are a dark little horse aren’t you?”
“I pay attention to what is going on around me. Especially when my life is potentially in danger.”
“You must think me some master of espionage! Actually I’m rather flattered. Just how do you think I could possibly have known that the pirates would have been hired to acquire this Wyrd Web, which the Skywaymen were also trying to procure, know that Gabriel would attempt, and succeed, to steal that Wyrd Web from them, know that Jack would then declare an affair, know that he would return to the clockwork city only to find that this Wyrd Web was of no use, and then have enough knowledge of arcana to suggest that the only other place to find information on opening portals would be the lost tribe of Siberian Soup Seers? Surely someone as…what was it? ‘Therezine-sotted’ as I would never be able to machinate such a scheme.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” The Witch said firmly. “Which is why it must be the hand of the Goddess.”
“But of course! To break out of Hull would require a miracle. It could only be done by divine assistance.”
“But the goddess has been banished.”
“Yes, to the ethereal realm. The realm we all travel to when we dream.”
“If we all travel to the ethereal realm when we dream, then you are suggesting that one portal remains open still. If that were the case, the goddess and all her minions would simply flit back again through it wouldn’t they?”
“No.” It was Mercurio who spoke this time. “The Witch is right, but communion between the spirit in sleep with beings from other realms only allows the passage of thought, not substance. It is not a true portal, more like one of these theremyphones they are working on which can transmit voices through the aether over long distances. No one could physically travel from one realm to another that way, not even the goddess.”
Skarry nodded in agreement. “Although, exactly why the goddess would chose to aid a notorious tea fiend in breaking out of Hull – so that he could then exact some sort of revenge upon his long lost cousin for wiz-knows-what crime, and then proceed to break someone else out of jail for some other unknown purpose – seems, to me, completely unfathomable.”
“You really do pay attention to everything don’t you?” Max sneered. “But, as you so rightly say, the reason is unfathomable, simply because there isn’t one. The whole idea is preposterous. If not a little flattering.”
“It would be wrong to question the will and actions of the Goddess,” The Witch said firmly. “However, the reason seems, at least partially, clear. It is the reason we were all, by seemingly happy coincidence, brought together here tonight. The Goddess wishes us to go on this voyage. All of us. Together. She intends for us to rediscover the secrets of the soup seers and she wants, perhaps even needs, Ashton to open that portal.”
“To what end?” Mercurio asked, his affected weary tone only slightly veiling the pitch of concern.
“That is not for us to question,” The Witch replied firmly. “We have been chosen, and we must accept the call.”
“You seem to be forgetting that we are wizards, my dear. We serve Wiz, not this archaic deity long banished and forgotten.”
I’d be amazed to learn that you served anyone but yourself. Skarry bit his tongue before the sentence could manifest on his lips, but his scowl may have betrayed him because Mercurio looked immediately affronted.
“One would be a fool not to acknowledge a higher power, whilst one exists,” he said tartly.
“Who is to say why the Goddess chooses a particular individual to be her servant?” The Witch continued stoically. “The point is, once you have been chosen, you have no choice but to go. And I suspect that you will go, despite your alleged devotion to the almighty Wiz.”
Mercurio scowled but said nothing and Skarry found himself wholeheartedly agreeing with The Witch’s astute observation.
“As for our friend, the tea fiend here, he has played his part admirably, despite his last minute reservations. Perhaps the Goddess has other plans for him to fulfil, but that, as with everything else, is not for us to question. I suspect he is not indenting to come with us.”
“I am not intending that anyone should go at all! Look, I refuse to be made the demon here! Can a gentleman not mention the word ‘soup’ without being accused of being an evil, machinating goddess-worshipper?”
“We are simply trying to get to the bottom of why we are all here and what we are going to do about it,” Skarry said. He had had just about enough of all this and the happy vision of his soft bed and warm, ambiently lit apartments back in Lichfield seemed to be drifting further and further from his grasp. He didn’t for a second believe The Witch’s claims that they were all destined to fulfil some pre-ordained destiny. If people were merely pawns in the hands of higher powers, then what was the point of wizardry, which sought to understand and shape the very fabric of existence? What, indeed, was the point in anything? No, Skarry was a man of action and he couldn’t accept that his fate was not his own to master, that his actions, and their consequences, were not a result of his own free choice. And yet he was still left feeling flummoxed. What the Hull was going on? Everything had spiralled completely out of his control and he now sought desperately to regain purchase. “I demand to know what is going here!” he said furiously. “Are you an agent for this goddess? Or are you simply out of your mind?”
“You say this to a ‘gentleman’ sat cradling an octopus,” Mercurio said scathingly. “My dear Johnny, it does not matter in the least what, if anything, caused the collision of events which brought us all here. The point is, and the only point in fact, we have to go.”
Skarry turned purple with incredulity. “You actually believe all this do you?” he spluttered.
“Not in the slightest. However, I do believe that the only way to get my hands… that is our hands… upon the information which Ashton requires is to go to Siberia. As I promised Ashton that I would help him to set up a portal, then, as a man of my word, that is what I must do. And you, Johnny, as a man of steadfast character and adventurous inclination, will obviously, if grudgingly, accompany me.”
Skarry seethed, but he couldn’t contradict the statement. If Mercurio went, then he felt a duty to go too, if only to make sure the greed-crazed lunatic made it back again in one piece. He ignored the small, gloating voice in the back of his head which kept whispering ‘haunted crypt at midnight.’