His starched collar was stiff and he couldn't help but to keep swatting it away from a jawline whose sparse scruff kept snagging on the fabric. He hated the clothes. However, high collars were in fashion and his mother would never have let him leave the house in something more reasonable, especially not on the errand he was running.
It was his first time to the shipyards. His father, occupied by who knew what, would not be able to attend. Dyne suspected that he was simply too hung over from the party he had thrown the night before in celebration of record low production costs. Whatever the reason, he was the one who was here now at the Bend, the area that sat between Upper and Lower Valua and was primarily filled with factories, artisans, dealers, and shipyards. It was to the latter that he was travelling. His family owned one of the larger shipyards in Valua, specializing in the wooden galleons that still formed the backbone of the Valuan armada.
The foreman led him up metal scaffolding that seemed to cling to the edge of the great chasm. Though if the great height every bothered him, the young man showed no sign of it. His bearing had drilled into him a second nature of easy confidence, though he lacked the distinctive sneer of most of the others of his class. His gaze was a level one, piqued with a slight curiosity.
"How many ships are currently in production?" he asked, his voice strong and steady.
"Five, includin' the one jus' finished," the foreman answered. "You'll see 'em, soon enuff."
Dyne could see the electric glow of the shipyard casting out the yellow light toward the chasm and his lip twitched barely upward. He had always been fascinated by ships. Not just in the family way, for his father only saw them as money - to be traded, sold, bought, repaired, sold again. No... Dyne loved them in and of themselves. As a boy, he had spent his days standing on the terrace of their roof to watch the ships come and go, sometimes in whole formations, imagining where it was they went and what they were bringing back. When he had gotten older, he had found out the answers to some of those questions. He didn't always like them.
The soles of his boots clacked on the grating of the metal walkway as he rounded the corner into the light. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but what he saw there made him grin, an expression he hid when the foreman turned to him and gestured grandly.
"Welcome, m'lord, to your fam'ly hold'ins"
Dyne nodded and glanced at the ships as impassively as he could. They were all in various stages of construction, some of them quite skeletal, all of them hanging from great metal racks suspended from the ceiling. There were workers crawling over them like ants and Dyne would have given anything to stand rooted to this spot just to watch them come together before his eyes. Finally he noticed the last one, the finished one, docked to the far side of the U-shape of the interior.
His breath caught in his throat. He was young, merely nineteen, and had never known love - leastways not outside the love of family. He had found most of the young women his age boring, and those beyond it narcissistic. Had he been a more experienced man he'd have known it right away, but as it was he was puzzled by the slight tremor that had taken to his body, the heart that thumped rapidly in his chest. What he did know was that this was a thing of beauty. A singular work of art more precious than any of the tapestries that hung in his family home.
The four masts of her were adorned with furled sails, ailerons painted red and reaching out of the sides like wings, the four triangular fins that thrust it through the air now resting tucked up against the sides like a bird at rest. There were ten cannons in all, marking it as military bound. This was a boat marked for the Armada and the Empress. That didn't keep him from wanting it.
"If ye'll follow me, ser, I'll get ye the papers yer dad was wantin'."
Dyne nodded and followed the man, though he found it hard to take his eyes off of his ship. He had already began to think of it as his own, though all reason told him that it could never be.
The office was clean enough, but Dyne still didn't want to risk sitting in the chair that was offered him. The foreman simply chuckled, shook his head, and turned to a metal cabinet on the far side of the room, rummaging around for a moment before producing the papers and tossing them onto the desk behind him with a loud slap.
"That should give yer dad a bit of light, readin', eh?" The foreman said, grinning. Dyne stepped forward and took the papers, flipping through them absently for a moment before tucking them under his right arm. "Will that be all, then?"
"I'd like to inspect the facilities," Dyne said without even thinking, "and the ships. I'd like to be familiar with the operation if I'm going to own them someday."
The foreman nodded. "Do you want me to show ye around, or do you want to nose about on yer own?"
"I'll see to it myself, thank you."
Dyne almost leaned forward in a stiff bow to the man before catching himself. One did not bow to those below their station. It was something his father had drilled into him since he could stand up straight, but he had rarely came into contact with the lower classes. Before the foreman could say anything else, he turned on his heel and exited the office.
He couldn't say how long he wandered. At first he stared in wonder at the great ships, watching as they came together piece by piece. Then, eventually, his eyes drifted the people doing the work. They were from Lower Valua, that he already knew, but this knowledge was only intellectual. He had been taught all his life to ignore the lesser people - that they had their uses, but it was best not to pay close attention to them.
He was paying attention now.
Most of them looked weary and sick, wearing clothes that looked as though they had been dragged from behind a carriage for a week. Some of them had open sores and stiff bandages no cleaner than their clothes were. Some were gaunt and wiry, the protruding cords of their muscles stretched tight across thin, bird-like bones.
But it was the eyes that haunted him. They seemed... empty. As though they had been stripped of their humanity, their intelligence, their will to continue. Like they were merely going through the motions, waiting for death.
A sharp crack filled the air. Dyne's eyes and ears were drawn to the source of the sound and what he saw there filled his blood with a hot rage. The foreman stood above a young woman, no more than sixteen, who was down on her knees with her back turned toward him. There was a thin slash in the back of her shirt, the edges of the cut dampened red. The foreman brandished a thin crop, raised high above his head. It whistled through the air again, hitting the woman's back with another sharp crack and another red slash across her back.
The crop raised again.
Again he could hear it whistle through the air.
It cracked across her back, and she gave a cry through gritted teeth.
The crop raised again.
He was only ten paces away now.
It whistled through the air.
He thrust his arm forward, catching the blow on his forearm. The pain was incredible, but the adrenaline was stronger, pumping through his veins like a drug. The foreman's face went from confusion, to anger, and then fear as he realized who had taken the blow. Dyne snatched the crop from him and cast it over the edge of the decking into Deep Sky.
"What are you doing?!" he demanded, the confused foreman backing away from him, holding his hands in front of him.
"Jes doin' my job, ser," he insisted. He thrust a finger at the abused woman still kneeling on the ground. "She kep' tanglin' up the riggings. Had ta teach 'er not ta. That's regulation, that is."
Dyne shrugged out of his stiff white coat and was about to put it around the shoulders of the young woman when his eyes were captured by the skin of her back. He had been expecting three wounds. But through the slits in her blouse he could see lines coursing all down the length of her, most of them red and angry, some of them a dull white. He gritted his teeth and leaned over so that his lips were near her ear.
"This wasn't the first time today, was it?"
She shook her head slowly, he brown eyes filled with tears. "No. Just the worst."
Dyne stood up and looked back at the foreman. He walked toward him with purpose, fire in his step and in his belly, fists clenched. The foreman backed up again, holding his hands in front him.
"I told ye, it's jes regulations!"
Dyne punched him square in the jaw.
What happened next, Dyne hadn't planned. The foreman, who had already been precariously close to the edge of the decking, tripped, rolled, then fell. Dyne stood there panting, heart racing, his mind spinning with the reality of what he had just done. It wasn't until the scream faded as it was drowned out by distance that full weight of it fell on him like a bleigock. He felt his stomach tighten and he he was afraid that he was going to be sick.
He took a deep breath and looked up.
And there she was.
Bold and beautiful, tethered to the other side of the shipyard, calling to him like the sirens of old. He let the breath out through his teeth, letting the tension that that coiled him bleed out, leaving him feeling tired and... old. It was an odd feeling, but it was a true one. He had matured more in the last thirty seconds than in the entire nineteen previous years.
He hated his life.
That was another realization that came to him suddenly. It had been so filled with pomp and emptiness, fancy clothes and food that was overly sweet, sticking to the roof of your mouth. But it lacked substance and meaning. He didn't want to own this shipyard. He didn't want to be the one behind the whip, the demanding miser that drove these... these people... to despair.
More than anything, he didn't want to spend one more day in this gloom.
He wanted out.
He turned to look at the workers who had gathered behind him. Men and women were still trickling toward him slowly, trying to figure out what had happened, about thirty in all. Then a whisper starting rolling through them. The sound was like a low hiss to Dyne, who steeled himself with a deep breath.
"If you want to leave, come with me," he said, his voice carrying the authority of command. "Otherwise... take what you can before leaving this place. Sell it. Find new work, better work, if you can. No one will be coming back here."
With those words he strode to the young woman on the ground, extending a hand to her. She looked up at him, a small fire kindling behind those deep brown eyes. She took his hand firmly and pulled herself up. Dyne didn't need to ask her if she was coming with him, nor did he need explain what it was he had planned.
There were ten of them in all, those who followed him. Men and women who knew their trade and little else. Men and women who, up to this moment, had been dead behind their eyes but had been roused to life and hope. Men and women who would follow him to the depths of Deep Sky and back, had he asked them to.
He did not.
He only wanted one thing.
She had whispered her name to him as he strode toward her and in that moment he knew that she had always been intended for him. It didn't matter that the Empress had bought and paid for her. She was his, always and forever. She had been waiting for this moment, waiting for him, for this crew, and for this purpose. She welcomed him. The moment he stepped on to her decking, he knew that his feet would never stay very far for very long.
He was home.
He snapped orders, the lessons from schooling and personal study rising easily to his need of them. A man, slightly older than he was with a pinched face and greasy hair relayed his instructions to the men and women best. It was by their blood that this ship was built and it was their knowledge of her upon which he depended.
The sails were unfurled, Dyne could hear the pump and wheeze and grinding of gears as the engine engaged, the lower fins untucking themselves from the sides and gliding smoothly through the air.
"Who's the best person to take the helm?" As much as he wanted to, Dyne knew it was no place for him. His place was to roam the deck, to encourage and to guide.
"I am, sir," the pinched faced man said matter of factly, without a hint of pride.
Dyne extended a hand to the man who took it into a firm grip without a second thought.
"Welcome aboard the Albatross, First Mate...?"
"Briggs, sir. They call me Briggs."
"It's good to meet you, Mr. Briggs. I want you to take us to the back of the shipyard, then turn around and sail back out. I'm going to make sure this place, and what happened here, is remembered."
The ghost a smile tugged at the corners of Briggs' hatchet face. "Aye aye, Cap'n"
He did as he was told. And, at Dyne's word, the cannoneers let loose volley after volley of cannon fire, ripping into the shipyard with ferocity, destroying ship and scaffold and building. By the time the agile Albatross flew out of the wreckage the only thing left was a sagging roof.
"Full speed to the Grand Fortress. Unless I'm wrong, the gates should still be open for evening traffic."
The Albatross sailed like a dream, gliding through the air like a fish and just as nimble. By the time they got to the Grand Fortress, other wooden galleons were scrambling to disembark and Dyne and his crew could hear the klaxons wailing, spreading the news of what they had done. But there was still traffic coming in steadily through the open door of the fortress and Dyne ordered them to make straight for it.
It was that the cannon fire sounded, iron balls screaming through the air around them. Dyne yelled for return fire, even though he wasn't sure where where the shots were coming from, hoping that his cannoneers did.
With a loud rumble and groan the gates started to crawl closed.
They could make it, Dyne knew they could make it.
If only they could evade this cannon fire...
Heat blossomed on Dyne's right side and he looked back to see a ship burst into flame. A smile lit his face. It was then that he knew - this is what he was born to do. These were the moments that he would live for, the times that he would feel the most alive... when he was a hair's breadth away from death.
They made it through the gate with plenty of room to spare, though the pursuing ships would not be so lucky. There were too many ships trapped on the outer side of the Grand Fortress for the great cannons to open fire on them. At least, not without mercantile casualties. Dyne grinned to think of the chaos that was happening behind that great iron gate. It would bring life Valua, if for nothing but the span of a few weeks. They would talk about the noble's son who stole a ship, of the workers who had escaped with him, of the destroyed shipyard and the downe armada ship. It was only a spark, but maybe it would start a small fire in the hearts of those left behind.
Dyne strode to the front of the ship, breathing deeply the free air as they sailed out of the gloom and into the the waning light of the land between Valua and Mid-Ocean. He had never seen a sky so blue and cloud so white or tasted air so clean. He stood there for a long time, long enough that the others had gathered behind him, each of them staring out at the sky with equal parts excitement and apprehension. Dyne turned and smiled at them.
The words were simple and from the heart. There was new breath in his lungs and he didn't want to waste an ounce of it any longer.
"What... what are we going to do?" One of the women asked, hugging herself tightly.
"Live," another woman answered, strong and clear from the back of the group. Dyne saw that it was the woman with the marred back, the woman wearing his white coat, her brown hair tied back with a kerchief. "We're going to live. And hope. And dream."
Dyne had thought that he would never love anyone or anything more than he loved the Albatross.
He was wrong.