Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Each Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!
The Captain’s Mad Plan
The Skyland of Fwelal, the Free Nests of the Soweral
Her pink satin skirt swirled to a stop, the lacy hem clearing the dusty, wooden floorboards of the creaking warehouse by several fingerswidth. Her curly, blonde hair bobbed about her round, youthful face, bright dimples shining as her smile spread across her ruby-painted lips. Her cheeks possessed the ruddy glow of a young maiden only emphasized by the girlish squeal that burst from her mouth.
Even after a year serving beneath her, Varen found himself transfixed by her.
“Oh, I am so excited to meet you!” she gushed as she swept towards the leader of the smugglers, a wizened Sowerese hen named Straedris.
The old hen’s one good eye widened as the taller Human swept her up in an embrace. Straedris’s black-feathered wings thrust out from her side as her waxy-yellow beak opened wide then snapped closed. The dull-gray robe she wore hid the rest of her delicate body save for the dull-black claws of her feet protruding out the hem. The Sowerese were a race of Luastria, the bird-like beings who dwelled in the northern skylands above the Storm.
“This is . . . I . . .” chirped the hen. Her feathers rustled.
“You remind me of my own grand-mama,” Charele said, continuing in that breathy gush that made Varen shake his head.
The burly man watched the exchange as he leaned against a wooden support pillar, his brawny arms folded before him. Like Charele, he was a Vionese Human from the south, though his skin was a much darker shade of tan-brown than hers, his hair not quite as fair. His eyes squinted in the dimly lit warehouse.
Above, the rafters creaked.
Eyes watched. The rest of Straedris’s smugglers lurked, Soweral Luastria all. Varen caught glimpses of their clawed feet gripping the rafters, roosting up there like a flock of pigeons. Only pigeons don’t peck your eyes out if you offend them, thought Varen, staying at his ease as his breathy captain planted kisses on both of Straedris’s downy cheeks.
“Y-you’re the smuggler,” the old hen finally managed to chirp out, her voice a trilling lilt, musical even in her shock.
“I am!” Charele said, stepping back. Her flowery scent caught Varen’s nose. He shifted his stance as she planted her hands on her hips, emphasizing the way her dress narrowed about her waist and fit her torso with the snug intimacy of a lover’s hand. “I have been so eager to meet you, Straedris!” Another rush of giggling mirth spilled from Charele’s ruby lips.
Straedris glanced at Varen. Some looks crossed the species barrier, and the helpless gleam in her one good eye almost made Varen crack a smile. He shrugged his shoulders, his leather vest shifting across his broad torso.
“You’re truly Captain Charele?” Straedris asked again.
“Well, who else would I be?” asked the young woman, her sun-bright curls swaying about her face. “Captain of the Varele. Now, I believe you have a case of Fwelalin perfumes lacking those pesky custom stamps.”
“I do,” Straedris said. “Sorry to choke on my gizzard stone, but . . . I did not expect a . . . a . . .”
“Ravishing woman?” Charele asked, lifting her chin, her smile growing, setting off the dimples in her tan cheeks.
Straedris clucked her beak. “Yes, yes, that’s a word. My apologies, but Vionese is not my best tongue to speak.”
“But you do it so well.” Charele glanced over her shoulder at Varen. “Doesn’t she?”
“Yup,” he grunted.
“See, you do it very well.” Charele clapped her hands together. “Now, the perfume. I have to confess, I’m going to keep a bottle for myself. I’ve always wanted Fwelalin perfume, but it is so expensive in the Autonomy. Three sets of tax collectors really drive up the price.”
An honest merchant would sail his ship from Hreasrow, Fwelal’s capital, through the Free Nests of the Soweral, cross the skies of the Empire where another excise tax would be charged, and then finally reach the Autonomy where Varen and Charele hailed.
“I do not have the export stamps on them,” Straedris said as two Luastrians carried in the crate. They used their prehensile distal feathers on their wings to heft the crate. Unlike Straedris, these two were drakes, their brilliant, emerald crests contrasting with the raven-black of the rest of their feathers. Male Luastria always stood out, loving to preen.
“I can fake those,” Charele said, giving a dismissive wave of her hand.
The crate rattled with glass as the two drakes set it down before Charele, both clucking beaks and ruffling the feathers of their bare torsos. Straedris’s scaled foot appeared from beneath the hem of the robe. She grasped the edge of the crate and pried off the lid, the bone nails popping free. She uncovered the contents: rows of delicate bottles containing a pale-amber liquid.
“Oh, my,” Charele gushed. She darted her hand down, the lace of her cuff ruffling. She snatched up the bottle and worked out the glass stopper. Her dainty nose wrinkled. “Oh, Varen, this is true Fwelalin perfume. Care to sniff?”
“Nope,” Varen grunted. It’ll wreathe the ship in no time. Captain Charele loved her exotic comforts.
“Is it true that the base water the perfume is made from is precipitated out of the air via Mist?” asked Charele.
Mist was one of the four Blessings that the Goddess Riasruo bestowed, via the priestesses of her Church, upon every adult in the skies. Mist, Pressure, Lightning, or Wind allowed society to function in a world suspended over the ever-churning Storm. Ships sailed between lonely skylands propelled by powerful breezes summoned by Windwardens and held afloat by engines charged with Riasruo’s gift. With Moderate Mist, a person could manipulate the water vapor in the air, creating a fog or causing the moisture to precipitate out of the atmosphere and fill containers.
“They do,” answered Straedris. “But only at the fields of the Fwelalin roses, picking up some of the natural scents of the flowers and enhancing the final product.”
“Well, that is worth the price of a dozen emeralds,” Charele said. She glanced at Varen. “Bosun, if you please.”
Emeralds were the largest denomination, a holdover from when the Vaarckthian Empire ruled much of the skies. Coins, from sapphire pennies to emeralds, were made of porcelain impregnated with the corresponding crushed gemstone. The dies that stamped them were some of the most guarded objects in the skies. Varen reached into his vest and produced the purse. It clinked as he tossed it to the old hen. She squawked in annoyance, fumbling to catch it with her wing.
“Varen!” huffed Charele. “Manners.”
“Sorry,” Varen grunted, folding his thick arms again. His eyes flicked to the two drakes who still flanked the crate. They stood too close to Charele.
Straedris slipped the pouch into her robe’s pocket.
“Oh, you’re trusting,” Charele said. “I like that. There’s so much suspicion in the skies. Why, I was carrying this gentleman on my boat. He was a rather ravishing Vaarckthian with the most beautiful gray eyes, who thought I was trying to pry into his affairs when I just wanted to enjoy a cozy supper in my—”
“You can leave now,” clucked Straedris. “I don’t need to hear your blather.”
“But I haven’t told you why he was so suspicious about—”
“Leave!” snapped the hen, her voice shrill.
Charele sighed and shook her head. “Fine, fine. Bosun, if you would be a dear.”
Varen pushed himself off the post, but before he took a step, the two drakes slid between the crate and Charele, their clawed feet spread wide, their wings tucked in close to their black-feathered bodies. Varen’s skin grew taut.
“I see,” Charele said, the breathiness vanishing from her voice. “No trust at all.”
Straedris clucked her beak. As she walked towards the darkness, her claws clicking on the wooden floor, she said, “I’m allowing you to leave with your lives.”
“Not good enough,” Charele said. Her hand moved fast, darting to the lacy cuff of her left sleeve and grasped a concealed hilt.
The drake on her left hardly had time to chirp before she planted the hogbone dagger into his breast. Dark blood welled over the black feathers. She wrenched her dagger free, skirt swirling as she slashed the crimson-stained blade at the second drake. He swept a wing up before him to block her attack.
It was a feint.
She ducked low beneath his feathers, layers of petticoats swishing, and slashed the dagger across his belly. He squawked as his wings clutched his stomach, holding in innards as he stumbled back and collapsed.
Above, the Luastria cawed and shrieked with the ferocity of a murder of crows.
Varen built his charge in his fists as they descended in a mass of black feathers, leaping down from the rafters. Though Luastria were smaller than Humans, their hollow bones giving them a delicate build, they came equipped with natural weapons: slashing claws and jabbing beaks.
His fist slammed into the first Luastria’s head. His Blessing of Lightning discharged. Sparks flared from his knuckles. Feathers sizzled as he sent the lethal jolt of current into the smuggler’s body. Varen’s foe collapsed, scaled legs twitching.
Pink skirts flared, flashing white petticoats, as Charele slashed and stabbed with her knife, driving back her foes while a pair of black-feathered drakes advanced on Varen, one’s crest a brilliant green, the other’s the deep hue of rain-fed grass. Mist spilled from the first, a thick fog that swelled through the warehouse.
Not just Moderate Mist, but Major, the strongest form of the Blessing Riasruo granted. He sought to choke the world to disorienting gray, reducing Varen and Charele to a mere arm’s length. Like most, Varen had been gifted with two Blessings by the Sun Goddess: Moderate Lightning and Minor Mist. As the thick, wet curtains swallowed the warehouse, he peered through the vapor like it wasn’t there.
“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers,” cursed Charele. She lacked Minor Mist.
“Hold on, Cap’n!” he bellowed as the two drakes rushed at him.
He grinned. Lightning crackled across his body. He had nine more discharges left before he ran dry. His bare feet shifted on the floorboards. Claws scraped on wood. Wings flapped. The drakes launched themselves at him, sharp beaks flashing at his chest.
Heart pounding, exhilaration flaring through his veins, he darted to his right. Brilliant-crest’s knifing jab streaked past Varen. His hand lashed out at the second, sliding beneath a sharp beak to grasp the bird by the throat.
The fog lit up with the sparks arching out of his palm into the smuggler. Instead of convulsing, the bird hissed. Clawed legs lashed out while wings spread wide. Leather tore, pain flaring across Varen’s thigh. The bird also had Lightning, rendering him immune from electrical attacks.
Behind Varen, brilliant-crest’s claws scratched at the wood, coming around for another attack. Varen pivoted, swinging around the Luastria he clenched by the throat. The bird squawked, wings flapping hard. Fog eddied around them.
Varen thrust his living shield before him. A sickening crunch echoed through the swirling mist. The Luastria spasmed in Varen’s grip. The tip of a bloodied beak burst from the drake’s chest. Varen flung the dying bird to the side.
Brilliant-crest recoiled, cawing and shrieking, his compatriot’s gore clinging to his beak.
Varen’s fist crashed into brilliant-crest’s chest. The sternum snapped with a loud crack. Lightning flared. The drake hit the ground hard, smoke rising from his caved-in chest. A thick, black tongue protruded out of his beak.
“Charele!” Varen growled, casting his gaze through the chaos of the mist. Not all the Luastria could see. Some stumbled around, crashing into crates and flapping wings. Others lay bleeding, chirping in pain.
“I’m here!” Charele answered.
He spotted her by the perfume crate. A foot lashed out at her, but she used the air around her as a shield, compressing it with Pressure. The dense atmosphere blunted the Luastrian’s attack, slowing it and giving her a chance to respond. Her skirts swirled as she thrust her dagger forward, taking her foe in the throat.
As she wrenched her blade free, she snarled, “Grab the crate! We’re leaving.”
“How?” Varen grunted as he rushed for the perfume.
Charele favored him a wild grin, her tanned face flushed not only from her rouge. Sweat beaded her forehead, giving her a vital gleam. “I have a plan.”
No words terrified Varen more.
Chirps echoed around them, the Luastria calling out in the mist. Their language spilled too fast for any Human to understand. It was too lilting. Too melodic. The songs came from all directions. He caught glimpses of the drakes moving through the crates while others stalked the rafters.
“Let’s see,” Charele said as she shifted around. “This fog is making it difficult and . . . Here we are.”
As Varen hefted the crate in both his hands, grunting at the strain, he watched as she stared down at the floor. Wood groaned beneath her. Dust covering the boards puffed into the air. He frowned and then gasped as the wooden floor snapped and compressed into sawdust, the weight of air ripping through the boards.
She dropped through the hole, her skirts fluttering up, exposing dainty petticoats and a flash of bare calves.
“Theisseg’s bunghole!” Varen snarled, rushing at the opening.
“I’m fine! It worked!” Charele called from below.
He peered down into darkness, her face swimming out of the shadows as she stared up at him. She took a step back and beckoned.
The bottles shifted in the crate as he threw a look over his shoulder. Claws scratched across wood. Beaks clucked with ferocity. Cursing, he stepped into the jagged hole she’d ripped through the floor with her Pressure.
He bent his knees and grunted as he landed hard. Pain flared through his shin bones as his legs bent to absorb the impact. His cut thigh throbbed as he snarled in wordless agony. He leaned back against an earthen wall, heavy breaths exploding past clenched teeth.
“Good, good, the perfume appears unbroken,” Charele said.
“We have deadlier eels to worry ‘bout,” grunted Varen, glancing up. The pain dulled to a throb, exhilaration soothing it away.
“Indeed,” she said. She bit her lower lip for a moment. Then she darted a hand into the box and yanked out a glass bottle. A wistful look crossed her face. “I would have smelled beautiful in this. I suggest you stand back.”
The chirping and squawking grew louder. Mist poured down the hole, tendrils of spindly gray. Varen stepped back down the tunnel, his shoulder brushing the soil. Dirt cascaded off the wall and spilled over his arm. The earth was cold beneath, his toes curling into the hard-packed floor.
Charele slammed the bottle of perfume hard on the ground at her feet. It shattered. What had been a sweet scent now overpowered Varen’s nostrils. His eyes burned from the tincture’s fumes. Charele covered her mouth with a frilly handkerchief she’d produced from . . . somewhere.
“If you would use your Lightning and start a fire,” she said. “That should delay their pursuit.”
Understanding sparked through him. Nodding, he shifted his grip on the heavy crate. He guided his static charge down to his right foot as he extended it, his big toe nudging the puddle of perfume soaking into the earthen floor.
He discharged his Lightning.
An arch of white-hot plasma zapped from his toe into the liquid. Flames burst across the perfume’s surface. He yanked his foot back as the tongues of orange and red leaped into the air, reaching for the hole.
“Come,” Charele said, staring off into the darkness lit by the dancing flames. “This way.”
She placed her hand along the wall and marched forward with confidence, skirts whisking. Grunting, he limped after her, thigh throbbing with his heart’s heavy beat. He ducked his head as the tunnel’s height descended. The bottles rattled in the crate, his fingers aching as they gripped the heavy load.
“What is this?”
“Zalg tunnels,” Charele said.
Behind them, loud screeches echoed. The flames danced, causing his shadow to flit across Charele as she led the way. She rounded a corner, vanishing into the deeper darkness. Varen glanced behind him at the fire.
Water splashed down. Steam hissed and half of the light died.
Skin tightening, he followed her around the corner. “Zalg tunnels?”
“They built much of Hreasrow,” Charele answered out of the darkness.
He couldn’t see her as much more than a shape as she moved ahead. A shiver ran through Varen as he stumbled after her. More steam hissed behind him, the last of the firelight snuffing out. The little illumination spilling around the corner vanished.
Darkness pressed in on him. He could feel the weight of Hreasrow above him. He shifted his shoulders. He’d never trusted those furry, mole-like creatures. Zalg grubbed in the dirt. They didn’t sail the skies above the Storm. They didn’t spend their time bathing in Riasruo’s sun. They hid in the bowels of the skylands, always digging, worming through dirt and rock. Their skill at quarrying stone and shaping crystals were unparalleled, but . . .
How could they survive in this?
The blackness had a texture. He felt it against his skin, squeezing at him. A gibbering fear swept through Varen. He’d rather have been back in the warehouse, swinging his fists into the flock of Luastrian smugglers.
“Now we go left,” Charele’s voice drifted out of the darkness before him. “You still with me, Varen?”
“Yes, Cap’n,” he muttered. “You know the way?”
“Of course.” A girlish laughter swirled around him, driving back the oppression.
His shoulder rubbed down the wall until he felt the passage. He stumbled after her, chasing the sweet scent of her perfume and the rustle of her skirt. He gripped the crate to his chest, the weight something familiar against the terror of the tunnels.
His head scraped along the ceiling, soil spilling over his shoulders. It tumbled cold down the back of his vest. He shuddered. Sweat dripped from his brow, but not from the exertion. He shifted his grip on the crate, clammy palms slipping.
“Now another left,” Charele said, her words almost an illumination against the umbral weight. “Isn’t this thrilling, Varen?”
“Not my word for it,” he muttered.
Chirps echoed through the tunnels. Sometimes light would flash around the bend, the dancing of torches beckoning with the seduction of a friendly barmaid. Feathers rustled and scaled feet slapped on dirt. He almost wanted to be found. To fight in honest light, not skulking through the skyland’s guts.
“First left,” Charele chimed, her words drawing him through the heavy night. “Second left . . . And here we are. Third left.”
“You know where we going, Cap’n?” he asked, throwing a look behind him.
A ruddy glow danced in invitation.
“Trust me, Varen.”
“Did you know they’d rob us?” he demanded, his spine itching. He wanted to throw down the Storming crate, let her perfume rot, and charge the smugglers.
“When I was in the Navy, my warrant officer always taught me to expect a sunny day but plan for Theisseg’s rain to ruin it.”
“My pa shoulda paid heed to that one,” Varen grunted. The ruddy glow approached. So sweet.
“And now we go right,” she said. “I think.”
He froze. “You think?”
She laughed. “Oh, Varen, relax. You need to take the time to enjoy this. We’re skulking through Zalg tunnels being hunted by Sowerese smugglers!”
“I know what we’re doin’, Cap’n!” he snapped.
“Really, Bosun,” she huffed. “I expect better from you. Now, we just go straight here and . . . yes, yes, here we are.”
The chirps and squawks swelled louder and the torchlight burned brighter as they turned towards another tunnel. Ahead, the darkness looked different. He frowned, his head cocking, then he noticed the little glimmers in the sheet of night ahead, little gems that twinkled like . . .
“Stars,” he croaked. “Riasruo’s sun be praised.”
“Yep,” Charele said. He could see her silhouetted against them, her figure separating from the shadows as she marched forward. “The skyland’s edge. See the coral growing around the perimeter of the tunnel’s mouth?”
Varen’s heart sank. Skylands tended to have sheer cliffs for edges. Various species of coral, differing from skyland to skyland, covered the sides. They gave each one a unique look, some beautiful in the mix of colors, others a riot of hues that clashed so badly it made your stomach sour to look upon.
But it also meant this tunnel dead-ended above nothing. Skylands hovered over the endless Storm, Theisseg’s domain. The Dark Goddess tortured those who fell in it, or so Varen’s gramma had always said in her cackling voice. The coral along the side of skylands was too sharp to climb.
“Then we’re trapped,” he muttered. He turned around to see the torches approaching the corner. The squawks were almost on them. Relief filled him as the light came closer and closer. “Guess this is a good spot to fight.”
I don’t gotta die in darkness, he thought, Lightning crackling down to his fists.
“What are you talking about?” Charele asked. “That’s utter foolishness. There’s at least thirty of them. How much Lightning have you used?”
He shifted his shoulders as he glanced at her. She stood right at the edge, the wind stirring her blonde curls and the skirt of her dress. “They can only come at us one at a time. I’ll take enough down to give you a chance, Cap’n.”
“Varen,” she said, shaking her head. “That is the most foolish thing I have ever heard. Dying spoils all the fun.”
Then she leaped off the edge.
“Charele!” he shouted, his heart’s beat crushed by shock.
He raced towards the opening, bottles rattling. Terror had seared the image of her stepping off, her skirt flaring as she fell towards the Storm in his mind. Icy fear screamed through his veins. Behind him, the Luastria squawked in triumph.
He didn’t care.
He reached the edge, screaming, “Cap’n!”
“Varen?” she asked, a quizzical tone to her words.
She stood a few ropes down in a small boat that hovered beside the coral-coated sides of the skyland. Isan and Humith, a pair of sailors from the Varele, were at either end of the boat, both of them grinning up at him.
Varen’s jaw dropped as she shook her head. “Y-you . . . you . . . I . . . That . . .”
“Come now, Bosun,” she said. “Hurry, those birds sound like they’re almost on us.”
A loud caw cried out behind him. Feathers rustled. Torchlight danced along the walls. “Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!”
He jumped off the edge and landed in the boat.
It shuddered and sank, bobbing beneath him. Charele swayed with the shifting skiff, her skirts rustling, a merry smile on her face. She winked at him as the boat surged away from the skyland, propelled by the small wind engine in the back, the hiss of air crashing into the pea-green coral.
Varen’s legs quivered. They buckled and then he sank down onto one of the benches, the crate shaking on his lap. He trembled as he stared up at his captain. The smile on her face brimmed with triumph.
“You didn’t tell me?” he croaked. “You had this all planned out and . . . and . . .”
“Aren’t surprises fun?” Charele asked, clapping her hands together.
He shook his head as the longboat sped away from Fwelal. It rose into the air, the Luastrian city of Hreasrow gliding past as they headed for the harbor where their ship, the Varele, awaited, loaded with legitimate cargo to screen the illicit goods they smuggled.
“You’re mad,” he groaned, his eyes squinting at his captain.
Isan laughed as he guided the boat. “That she is.”
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Charele said, eyeing the crate. “We got our merchandise.”
He groaned and shook his head.
With the wind whipping around her dress, Charele winked at Varen. She spun and marched to the prow, dressed for a ball. A slender woman, her hair styled and waving in the breeze, the delicate lace around her cuffs fluttering, a bloody dagger clutched in her hand. She stood proud of herself. She was the most ruthless captain, honest or not, Varen had ever served beneath. He clutched the crate of perfume to him, the bottles rattling inside, and groaned.
She’s going to get me killed from fright, he thought. Riasruo Above, defend me from her downyheaded plots. Keep my backside whole from her wild schemes.
Charele’s chortles rose above the wind.
Varen had a feeling Riasruo didn’t hear his prayers over his captain’s mirth.
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