A/N: Well, that only took forever, didn't it? It really doesn't help my updating speed that the plotbunnies (plotlemkins? Plotfromps?) keep changing their mind about what this fic is actually about and basically changing the whole plot for me. Gah. Also, I don't want to sound like I'm insulting the intelligence of my lovely readers, but just to make it clear, although the Captain is telling this story to Ferax, the presentation is more like a flashback sequence. I figured it would be a lot easier to write that way than trying to keep the story being told in the Captain's 'voice'.
There are a few faces that should be more familiar in this chapter. I'm pretty sure you'll be able to spot them.
Chapter II – The Sky-Shipyards
Another day was beginning as Arborinus Voltix sprinted through the crowded streets of Undertown, ducking and swerving around the multitude of street merchants, labourers hurrying towards their workplaces, young'uns running wild and playing away from the supervision of parents, and those just wandering the streets, either with enough money that they need not work, or – far more likely in this district – out of a job and hoping to find one.
Rin himself fell into the second category, although as he heard a nearby clock chime seven hours, he knew he would be lucky not to be in the last before the day was out. A labourer in the sky shipyard district of Undertown, his was a job that many others would be glad of. Pernius Mulgobnix, the yardmaster he worked under, loathed tardiness in his workers and Rin's shift had started at six hours, meaning he would be lucky to still be employed by the time the day was out.
It wasn't his fault he was late, though – at least, not really. He hadn't intended to oversleep, but he'd spent most of the previous night sneaking into one of the palaces in the Western Quays, which belonged to the father of his best friend. Normally, one would expect a friend to be able to gain admittance through the front door like anyone else, but to say that Ulbus Pentephraxis disliked the common boy his son had befriended was like saying that the Endless Winter of seventeen years ago was nothing more than a brief cold snap. The result was that if Rin wanted to see Cowlquape, it was easiest in the evening, when Ulbus Pentephraxis was becoming acquainted with a bottle or three of sapwine, but it still meant that one had to sneak in, or the other sneak out.
Cowlquape, Rin reflected as he wove his way through the early morning traffic, thankful to see he had almost reached the sky-shipyards, had seemed unusually subdued the night before. It was partly why Rin had stayed so long – he had been trying to draw the reason for his friend's melancholy out of him – and why he was planning on returning again that night. Still, as harsh as it might sound, that was a consideration for later. Right now, Rin's biggest concern was getting to work!
The sky-shipyards were buzzing with activity. Workers were busy sawing, shaping, waxing and varnishing wood for the sky ships that were being built and repaired, whilst below, their fellow labourers were occupied with unloading deliveries: of woodspider silk – painstakingly woven into huge sheets of cloth by silk-weavers in the East Undertown slums for a fraction of its true price – that would be used to make and patch sky ship sails; of the finest timber from the Deepwoods, purchased from the woodtrolls and shipped in, more often than not, by sky pirates as payment for repairs; of huge quantities of woodbee wax; of every substance and material imaginable that was required to work on the sky ships resting in the huge cradles that were raised above the roofs of the buildings below like enormous hammocks supported from below.
To work on sky ships, one needed a head for heights; it was not unknown, or even uncommon, for an unlucky worker to plunge to his death thanks to a misplaced foot during their ascent to the cradles or during their shift once up there. A macabre running joke among those who worked under the more unscrupulous yardmasters was that they sabotaged the harnesses the workers used while working on the cradles so that the labourers would plunge to their deaths at the end of their shifts, thereby not having to be paid for the day's work. It was sickening – but in Undertown, you never knew what was true.
Even here there was a hierarchy: the grandest League sky ships were secured within the cradles of the master shipbuilders – meaning, those who had almost certainly clawed their way to the top of the pile through trickery and deceit, who had influence in the Leagues of Flight, and who were fully prepared to con their fellow yardmasters out of commissions – while less influential crafters with a meagre budget had to make do with smaller commissions for less pay, leaving them unable to rise and challenge those with the ear of the Leagues of Flight, who would in turn look down in revulsion, even as they sold the off-cuts of their materials to the very plebeians they trod on daily.
It was a world within a world, one of the many economic circles that made up Undertown, and at this moment in time Rin was trying to sneak in without being—
"Well, well, look what the barkcat dragged in."
…Noticed. The youth groaned as he turned to the man who had addressed him – none other than the yardmaster himself!
Pernius Mulgobnix was a harsh taskmaster who drove his workers hard for their wages, but who never withheld praise when it was due. Tall and wiry, dressed in his trademark grey greatcoat that matched his steely gaze, he cut an imposing figure in the sky-shipyards, and was universally respected by those he employed. Rumour had it that he had once been a sky pirate who had retired and set up his business to undercut the Leagues, and after seeing him in a rage over a lazy labourer or a late shipment of timber, Rin could well imagine the shipyard master yelling at a crew of sky pirates as they soared over the Edge, plundering League ships and returning to Undertown laden with profit.
"I don't recall saying that your shift started at seven hours, Voltix." Mulgobnix continued, fixing Rin with a glare that made the boy feel as though he ought to be shrivelling. "Unless, of course, I happened to doze off yesterday and said so in my sleep?"
"No, sir." Rin muttered, unable to meet the shipyard master's gaze any longer and so casting his own to the ground. "Sorry, sir."
"'Sorry, sir', 'Won't happen again, sir', "I'll be on time tomorrow, sir'." Mulgobnix echoed all of the regular assurances he received from the boy stood before him and then shook his head. "That's all I ever hear from you, Voltix. There are dozens of boys in this city, even hundreds, who would give their back teeth for your job, so I find myself asking why, when you are yet again late for work, shouldn't I turn you off and hire someone who will arrive promptly for their shift?"
Rin had no answer to that, and was ashamed of it. Everything the yardmaster said was true; he was often late to work for one reason or another, and he knew he was extremely lucky that he'd lasted this long. He enjoyed his work at the sky-shipyards, and wished he could think of some defence that would stop Mulgobnix dismissing him, but none came to mind – and, really, he knew he didn't deserve another chance.
The yardmaster sighed heavily. "You're a good worker, lad," he continued in a marginally warmer tone. "When you're here, you're one of my best, but I can't have you turning up at whatever time you feel like. Not only is it cutting your own hours, but it sets a bad example if you get away with it."
Rin shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. "I… I'm sorry, sir. I don't do it because I'm lazy, or… or I just can't be bothered – I like working here, I really do. It's just…"
"Just what?" The yardmaster's tone was unreadable.
"It's just…" Rin hesitated, finding himself without an answer. He desperately cast around for a reply that might satisfy the yardmaster, but none presented itself.
The yardmaster waited, but when he saw that no answer was forthcoming he shook his head, looking disappointed.
"You'll make up the time at the end of your shift, Voltix." he said. "And I'm docking your wages."
"Yes, sir. " The leaden weight of guilt settled in the pit of Rin's stomach. If he couldn't bring enough money home, and through the fault of nobody but himself, he didn't know what he'd do "I…"
At that moment, however, something odd caught his eye. Behind Mulgobnix lay the cluster of offices that the clerks worked in, documenting the arrival of shipments, tallying the wages of workers and generally balancing the books, and where the yardmaster discussed the issue of payment with captains. Nobody else had the authority to go there; to disobey that particular order meant instant dismissal for a worker, and there was no reason for anyone else to even want to go in. At that moment, however, a weasel-faced fourthling in a scarlet greatcoat was lurking by the offices, as if waiting to speak to the yardmaster – or sneak in when the coast was clear. Certainly he didn't have the look of a proud, self-assured captain. In fact, Rin thought – having acquired something of a talent for guessing what position on a crew a sky sailor or sky pirate held – he looked more like a quartermaster; sneaking and insidious. If that was the case, he had no right to be lurking there.
"Well, Voltix?" Mulgobnix's booming voice recaptured Rin's attention.
"Sir, there's—" Rin, having looked back at the yardmaster, glanced again at the offices, only to see – nothing! "I… there was…."
"What?" The yardmaster demanded and went on before Rin could answer. "For Sky's sake, stop wasting time! Now get your arse up that cradle before I really do turn you off!"
Mysterious quartermaster or no, Rin wasn't about to test Mulgobnix's willingness to go through with that particular threat. It would have to wait until later – if he hadn't imagined it.
"Yes, sir!" Rin cried over his shoulder, already running as fast as he could to the nearest sky ship cradle. He did not look back at the yardmaster – he did not dare – but if he had, he might just have caught the brief flash of amusement that crossed Pernius Mulgobnix's face as he watched his young worker dash off.
Rin ran through the sky-shipyard, heading for the West Tower, one of the many structures that supported the lofty cradles that held both the sky ships in for repairs, and those that were being constructed from scratch. Luckily, when he arrived, a sky-barge was just being landed by a mobgnome, letting off a couple of labourers whose shifts had just finished. Rin gave them a nod as he passed them and climbed onto the barge, but it wasn't returned. He didn't blame them; they looked exhausted. Very few worked the dawn shift, as it took its toll without mercy, but there were always those desperate enough for the money.
"I suppose you're wanting to go up now." The mobgnome said as Rin took a seat. "I don't know, never a moment's peace for the wicked…"
"Better wages here than most places, though, eh?" Rin replied.
The mobgnome just snorted at that and set the sky-barge off again. As the ground fell away beneath them, Rin couldn't help grinning. It was a highlight of his day, and in the moments on the sky-barge, he dreamed he was on a sky ship of his own, looking down as he set off for the Deepwoods.
It was a brief dream for a brief journey, though, and all too soon over. Rin thanked the mobgnome as he got out onto the top of the West Tower, and got a grunt in response. He pulled a face at the mobgnome's back and then glanced up for the first time. In the West Tower cradles, Rin could see what he thought at first could be nothing but a sky pirate ship, but the design was wrong—no, not wrong, per se, simply different to anything he had seen before. A frown settled on the youth's face as he tried to puzzle out what the ship could be. It was sleeker than any other ship he had ever seen, and just to look at it made his breath catch in his throat at the thought of what a dream it must be to sail. Was it a sky pirate ship, after all? Perhaps one that had been custom built in an experimental style? It was an open secret that Yardmaster Mulgobnix was a supporter of sky pirates, and so got most of his business from them. That he would have been commissioned by a captain who wanted a better chance of outrunning the League ships that were plundered by sky pirates was quite possible.
Shaking the thought from his mind for the present, Rin concentrated on his ascent up to the cradle. Most labourers worked from sky barges and tenders, guiding the components of the sky ships together from relative safety, but it was the workers like Rin who fixed these components together from the shells of the sky-ships themselves. It was a risky job, in which a misstep could spell a long fall with a fatal stop, and it took a head for heights, daring and quick thinking to succeed. It was what Mulgobnix had meant when saying that Rin was one of his best workers; despite, or perhaps because of his youth, Rin was a natural. All the same, it didn't do to become cocky that high above ground, and Rin never forgot what he'd been told on his first day at the sky-shipyards.
"Always check your harness, lad. Three tugs with all your strength, and if the rope doesn't give then it's safe to go up."
With quick, practiced movements, Rin buckled on his harness belt and tied one of the free roped to it. After pulling on the rope three times to check it was tied securely at the top before he trusted it with his full weight, Rin began to climb. He remembered how it had seemed to take forever the first few times he'd climbed up, and true, it was a long way, but with six months of experience under his belt, the ascent was no longer as daunting as it once had been. Besides, there was an added bonus to so much climbing; Rin could now throw a punch with strength one wouldn't expect of a boy with such a small, wiry frame.
"Nice of you to join us, Your Lordship." The remark reached Rin as he clambered up onto the sky ship in for repairs. The younger boy grinned as he unfastened his harness with deft fingers. Tarp had joined them a few weeks ago as one of the casual labourers Mulgobnix had hired to help out with a sudden boom in demands for ships, and despite the age gap between them, they had quickly become friends.
"I thought I might just swing by to see how you were getting on, Tarp." Rin replied with a cavalier shrug and a grin. "We're doing the varnishing today, aren't we?"
"'We' as in the rest of us, or 'we' as in you actually chipping in now you're here?" Tarp asked of his friend, but there was humour in his tone, even if it was accompanied with exasperation, and he grinned back as he shuffled over to make room for Rin to work on the deck.
"Hey, I'm not late on purpose, you know." Rin said, shooting his friend an anxious look. The words of the yardmaster were ringing in his ears, and he hated the idea that his friends harboured ill feelings towards him. "It's just that I—well, you know that—"
He was interrupted by Tarp laughing heartily and clapping him on the shoulder. "Ah, I'm only having a laugh with you, Rin. How badly did ol' Ironsides chew you out, anyway?"
"Hardly any, actually." Rin replied as he took his place beside Tarp and, with brush at the ready, joined in giving the deck a final varnish. "He docked my wages, and I'm making up the time, but I still have a job."
Tarp nodded. "Could be worse, eh?"
"Plenty worse!" Rin agreed fervently, but before he could say any more the overseer, a heavy-set character with a short temper, yelled at them both to get back to work.
"If you were being paid to gossip, we'd have goblin matrons up here!"
The two friends grinned at each other and did as they were bid.
Once he got to work, the day passed relatively quickly. Rin enjoyed working at the sky-shipyards; the intricacies of sky-ship construction were fascinating and seeing the great hulks slowly come together to form an elegant whole was an experience he thought he would never tire of. The wages were good, too, which was a great help as the cost of clean water rose each day. Mulgobnix raised his workers' wages periodically, but there was only so much he could do without going out of business, which would leave the labourers with nothing. It was because of this particular cost – and one other – that Rin was so angry with himself for giving the yardmaster a reason to dock his wages. In a way, he welcomed the extra hour on the end of his shift that was spent making up time; it meant he could delay going home and explaining the situation to his mother for a little longer.
By the time he was finished he was exhausted, though it was only a little past fifteen hours. The descent from the cradle of the ship he'd been working on – called the Stormchaser, the very ship he had wondered about that morning – was left entirely to his body; his mind was on food and maybe a nap before he went to see Cowlquape.
He was alone in the small sky-barge that ferried workers up and down, having finished after the last of the next shift had arrived, but he ignored the grumbling of the mobgnome at having to make an extra trip. He was just ready – more than ready – to go home, even if he would be facing his mother's disappointment.
Just as he was leaving the sky-shipyards, however, a hand came down on his shoulder in a vice-like grip.
Rin was a born-and-bred Undertowner, and so naturally had all the instincts and suspicions that would be expected of such a person. If someone grabbed him with no explanation – especially if he couldn't see immediately who was detaining him – he assumed they meant him harm.
Reacting instinctively, he tried to twist out of the grip and partially succeeded; the hold loosened, allowing Rin to grab hold of the hand himself and prise the fingers apart, pushing them backwards. A cry of pain confirmed that he had succeeded. He rapidly scrambled away, lest the attack – as he presumed it was – was repeated. When he saw his assailant, however, the youth gave a gasp of surprise.
Stood before him, nursing his injured hand with his other, which itself was scarred from old injuries, with only stumps where his two middle fingers should have been, was the fourthling Rin had seen in the sky-shipyards that morning.
Instantly, he was torn between suspicion and anxiety. Suspicious of the fourthling's motives, which he had questioned from the first moment of glimpsing him, and anxious because there was always the chance that he was a genuine customer, despite his questionable behaviour, and if he reported Rin's conduct to Mulgobnix – reasonable though it seemed to the boy himself – then, combined with his lateness, it might be enough for the yardmaster to rethink his decision not to turn Rin off.
"Rather fast reflexes you have there, boy," the man remarked with a hint of a smirk. "Of course, I expect you need them up in the cradles, don't you?"
"Yes." Rin decided the best solution to his predicament would be to answer in monosyllables unless he absolutely had to do otherwise.
"I suppose you're quite fast, too, hm? Quite the runner?"
Rin stiffened at the man's words. They sounded innocent enough on their own, but there was something in his expression that hinted at a double meaning to what he was saying. It could be his imagination, but Rin knew there were men in Undertown whose idea of a bawdy house was filled with boys rather than women. He was just about to tell the fourthling what he could do with his propositioning and leave when the man took a folded sheet of paper from one of the many pockets of his scarlet greatcoat, and a pouch that looked fat with coins from another.
"I have a message that needs delivering, but I have business to take care of," he explained. "If you deliver it for me, I can make it worth your while."
Unease was immediately replaced with temptation. Rin was exhausted, but if he could make up what Mulgobnix had docked from his wages, then his mother need never know what had happened. Besides, delivering a message was hardly strenuous, especially as he knew Undertown and its shortcuts so well. If the man was up to something suspicious, as long as it didn't concern Rin or harm Yardmaster Mulgobnix's business in any way, what was it to him?
"Alright." Rin said, holding a hand out for the letter. "Where's it for?"
"Go to the Bloodoak Tavern and ask for Vixus Xivus. Come back with a reply before sixteen hours and we'll call it… five gold pieces, say?" The fourthling smirked at Rin's shocked expression. The youth had a right to be shocked, though; that amount seemed extraordinary for the simple delivery of a couple of messages, more than he earned in a week.
"Give it here," he told the fourthling with a grin, all of his fears overshadowed by the thought of all the good food that much money could buy. "For that, I'll fly."
It never occurred to him, as he pocketed the message, which was simply folded, not even sealed, to read it. After all, it was nothing to do with him, and besides, given that it wasn't a skill necessary in a labourer, he wasn't overly practiced at reading. He'd never heard of Vixus Xivus, but if Rin thought anything of it, he assumed that he was a Leaguesman or perhaps a sky pirate. Certainly nothing to trouble himself with. Besides, five gold pieces bought a great deal of discretion from a boy who was living on the knife-edge between the respectable poor and the poverty-stricken.