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Foreword from the author
This is Book II in the "Party of Five" series of novellas. That means, there's definitelt at least one more book out there that needs some love as well. Plus, it's really good to learn a bit more about the main characters and read their story, their first adventure together. Not that you really have to, me thinks, but I hope you'll like it. It's also good for the soul.
In book II, there might not be so many funny moments (the definition of funny is always up for debate), but I hope it delivers. For those of you who have already read Book I, by the time you've read Book II, I hope you'll be enticed to wait for Book III. For those of you who haven't read Book I, I hope you'll get a copy after reading this. Get one for your friends as well; like a gift or maybe part of a sinister plot to make their day.
I dearly hope you'll come to like the characters enough to wait for the next novella in the series. God willing, when this first story arc is completed, a paperback of all three books will be published in a single volume.
P.S. : Please do write a review if you could bother, even a nasty one. It's what enables me to know what works and what doesn't. Good reviews are really good for the soul, too.
Sincerely (I do mean it),
"I've never really understood all those planet-bound folk that look at the night sky all starry-eyed and gaze at it with a superbly idiotic grin and lose their grip on reality, making up all sorts of ideas about what space is like. I'll say this just once, hopefully some of you cadets are dead drunk not to notice the mistake you just made; space is boring, unforgiving, empty and a lot bigger than it looks like. A real lot."
-- Rear Admiral Stephen Zondmeier VII, Human League fleet academy welcoming speech
Ned was leaning against the upper deck railing, gazing at the milky blue sheen of a swarm of stars that showered the ship with a fuzzy, moon-like glow. For the last few days, ever since they'd sailed into the stars, a strange smile seemed to occupy his face for most of his waking time. In his sleep, all he could see was the glitter of stars and the image of his father, waving at him encouragingly to move on into a beautiful unknown. Or perhaps take an order; Ned wasn't clear on that. But it did make him feel better.
The ship traversed the deadness of space in a suitably dead silence; one could only surmise it was really moving at all because of the twinkle of the stars as their light bounced off the metal ramrod at its prow.
Winceham, the self-proclaimed, semi-retired halfuin rogue of the party was snoring heavily nearby, on a simple hay bed he'd brought from below deck. For the most part, Wince had enjoyed their journey so far, even though he spent most of his time kicking in his sleep.
Parcifal, the feisty redhead princess regent in exile, kept a mindful, worried eye at how her twin sister, Lernea, queen of Nomos for a day, handled the ship. It was in fact the look of utter and total boredom that worried Parcifal; it seemed like it was catching.
Theo, naturally inclined in the ways of sorcery, had just finished re-knitting his blond, silvery dreadlocks ... The traditional hairdo of the woodkin elf, the dreadlock, didn't suit him, tall and fair-skinned as he was. But it was his people's heritage, even though he wasn't really one of them. Him and Bo, his fiery-eyed bunny companion were shooting fireworks far off astern. They looked unequivocally happy.
"It's wonderful, isn't it?" said Ned to no-one in particular, and for a rather awkward amount of time, no-one bothered to reply. At length, Parcifal turned her head around and looked at him morosely, her hands folded behind her head as if surrendering to the uneventful, humdrum quagmire that she felt their journey really was.
"What, exactly, is it that you find wonderful?" she said in a monotone voice. Ned spread his arms as to hug the vastness of space surrounding them and replied in earnest:
"This," she said and nodded to a random patch of blackness, "is a void. A nothingness. I'm nearly spent by boredom."
"Oh, you're just lacking the flint to spark the imagination within you. I've written down a song about it. Dozens actually."
"Please, not another one," said Parcifal wearing a worried, sickly frown; she even thrust-out her open palm in a begging gesture. Ned was puzzled; it showed in his voice and the sudden jerk of his head.
"I'm not in the mood. Gracious Skrala, not now, not ever again," said Parcifal and failing to find the north in a place where it meant absolutely nothing, she sighed and made the warding gesture of Skrala; hands extended to the north in the shape of half a box.
"Mood is a thing for cattle, and love-making," pitched in Winceham with a grumby, muffled voice without warning.
Though half-asleep he was yet instantly aware of what was being discussed, his rogueish instincts always at the ready. Lernea's hard, solemn face, adorned in her long brown locks of hair, changed abruptly to that of a radiant, noble lady such as her lineage would demand of her.
She let go of the ship's helm and said, or rather announced, in a beaming voice:
"Mr. Winceham, I think that now, as they saying goes, she's all yours."
"I wouldn't want to intrude on your persons miladies. I think your sister's rather tall, too young and inexperienced for me tastes, not to mention somewhat lank on the waist," replied Winceham, with his face still buried in the soft cloth mattress filled with hay. Parcifal looked at the short halfuin with a perplexed frown, before she came to realise he was referring to her; her boot shortly thereafter connected with the halfuin's behinds, shoving him off the cot and onto the hard deck.
"My waist is fine by all accounts, thank you," said Parcifal looking mildly annoyed. Winceham picked himself up sporting a grin of mischief and no ill feelings, while Ned added, riding an entirely different train of thought:
"Are you saying, my singing is bad? Because, if I recall correctly, it worked like magic with those pirates and their ape-men."
"Which is to say," interjected Lernea, strolling around the deck stretching her back, "it's fit for animals and scum."
No-one was at the ship's helm, a matter which was soon made entirely apparent to everyone as the ship began to slowly list to port. Just as Parcifal walked over to grab the helm firmly with a look of annoyance on her face, she saw Bo flying accross the air as if falling slowly sideways, his fluffy ears shooting up in strange directions, firm and upright as if frozen by an amazing sense of danger. Theo followed close behind, smiling as broadly as a child left to its devices, all alone with a cookie jar. Parcifal stood baffled, while Theo grabbed the helm as he flew past it and turned the ship back on its proper course. He twisted his body to settle his feet on the ground with the grace of a dancer.
"And ... It seems that now, I can fly!" he said proudly, while Bo could be seen a few feet away, happily munching on an oversized leek with awe-inspiring veracity, slowly tumbling in the air.
Ned exclaimed on cue:
"It's space! It's so grandiose, so alluring. Anything is possible, see?" he said and pointed at the levitating bunny with a gleaming smile. Winceham and the Teletha sisters did not seem to share in the enthusiasm.
"That's what you've been saying for the past two weeks," said Lernea and let herself slump to the cot with a weary sigh. Parcifal on the other hand, sounded worried.
"Not to mention that all we're navigating blind, based on that scum's word alone."
Culliper lay in shackles in the hold; he'd told them as much as he knew himself. He had been told to raid the village and that he would collect his pay at Tallyflop. Even though Parcifal nearly convinced the rest to throw him overboard and use him as target practice, cooler minds had prevailed. Ned though very troubled about what to do with his father's killer, did not want to have his blood on his hands. He knew that wouldn't bring back his father.
"He'd be a fool to try and swing us. We'll reach some kind of port, at some point. That's for sure. Food and water is aplenty though, no worries there," said Winceham scratching his head and grooming his beard with a make-shift brush made out of some poor thing's teeth.
"Well, what if we're walking into a trap?" asked Parcifal, shaking her head, looking agitated.
"That would be sailing into a trap," corrected Lernea from was she now considered her cot, without bothering to take her arm off her shut eyes. Theo sounded confident, seeing as he kept the ship on course with little effort.
"I think everything's as it should be. Bo isn't the least bit nervous," he said and toyed with the bunny's ears. Bo seemed to wriggle with pleasure on Theo's shoulder.
"Bo is a bunny, Theo," said Parcifal with a voice that teetered on the brink of a shrill. Theo wasn't taken aback and insisted:
"Well, I trust his instincts. You'll see."
"Believe me, I'm dying to," said Parcifal, brandishing her lack of good humor for everyone to see, as if it were Encelados, her trusted blade.
"Harsh words in haste can oft be bad in taste," said Winceham in a sing-along voice as he produced his smoking pipe and pouch from a vest pocket.
"I thought Ned was the poet," said Lernea with a puzzled voice and a childish frown. Ned was sincere in what he thought was an apology:
"I hate to disappoint, but I do not do free verse."
"Well, Svarna be my guide, there's hope for our ears yet," replied Parcifal in an utterly disenchanted manner. Ned was beginning to realise his talents were being judged too harshly, all too unfairly.
"You keep making these remarks about my singing."
"I thought you'd never notice. Frankly, I'd prefer you kept those kinds of performances to yourself," said Parcifal and sat down on the deck, legs crossed.
"That's what I do, Parcifal. I perform," said Ned. It was obvious in his stricken face he felt more hurt than offended. Parcifal drove home what sounded like a thinly-veiled insult.
"Well, it would be more beneficial if you tried your hand at something else. A man without a sword is like a cup riddled with holes: useless."
Winceham lit his pipe, drew heavily and added as smoke left his nose and mouth freely:
"And dry as hell to boot. Cut the lad some slack, milady; he's more than proved his usefulness when that blue-eyed horror had us at the mercy of his maw."
"You're being unfair, sister. You stood there frozen, incapacitated, just like the rest of us. Except Ned," said Lernea and from the comfort of her cot pointed a blind finger at Theo, missing Ned wildly. Parcifal unsheathed Encelados and dutifully began to check the blade in detail, from all angles. It looked sharp as ever in the starlight.
"I would still think that was a freak occurrence. It has never happened to me before," she said, seemingly without giving the incident much thought.
"Well, there's a first time for everything, milady. Maybe you're too young to know better," said Winceham and looked away, drawing on his pipe, trying to look innocent. A smirk full of mischief adorned his face. Parcifal noticed, and was quick to answer.
"Is that another one of your sexual innuendos? Mother always said men are immature. I had no idea she meant old people as well."
"I'm not that old, mind you. I don't usually brag about it, but I could keep a lady up all night," said Winceham and secretly wished he could really remember the last time that had happened.
"It must be all that snoring," Lernea said matter-of-factly, and Parcifal grinned without a word. Her sister, she thought, had aptly filled in for her.
"There!" shouted Ned suddenly and pointed a finger, his excitement threatening to tear his face apart. Everyone turned their heads as if silently obeying an order. A moment or so passed before Parcifal asked with a somewhat surreptitious, wary look, her hand drawn to Encelados' hilt as if on its own:
"Don't you see it?" cried Ned as he rushed to the ship's bow like a five-year old waiting for ice cream to manifest itself out of thin air. Winceham furrowed his brow and toyed with his beard for a moment before he couldn't help ask himself:
"What are we looking for, lad?"
"That star! See how its light trembles? How it flickers, fading in and out? That's it! That must be Tallyflop!" shouted Ned without taking his eyes off the trembling, pointy source of light. Bo's eyes lit up like a blowing furnace all of a sudden and he made sure he had Theo's full attention, jumping up and down around the ship's steering wheel. The elf knew the bunny meant business so he brought the ship's bow to bear dead-on where Bo had been pointing to with his whole body, much more like a hunting dog than an innocent-looking herbivore would.
Lernea spared a moment or so to take a look as well, barely lifting herself up from the cot. It was as if she was trying to peer over an invisible perch.
"All I see is a twinkling star," she said drowsily and fell on the cot again, half-expecting to be roused for school, too soon for comfort.
"It could be a beacon," said Winceham stroking his beard thoughtfully.
"My thoughts exactly!" shouted Ned gleefully, while Theo exclaimed:
"Bo sure looks excited!"
Parcifal looked at the star, growing subtly larger with every passing moment. Then she stared at the elf and the bunny for a moment or so, her look full of apprehension. She said to Theo:
"Whenever those eyes flame up ... Nothing good ever happens."
Theo would have none of that. He waved a hand dismissively; with eyes fixed on the twinkling star up ahead, he said firmly:
"Preposterous. Utterly unfounded. Pessimistic superstitious misconceptions. Bo's eyes flaming up and our own predicaments have absolutely no correlation, on a scientific or thaumaturgic basis whatsoever."
Wnceham turned and looked at Theo rather confounded. Yet he seemed to approve of Theo's answer, at least in principle. He nodded and said:
"Well said, lad."
Winceham smiled at Theo, who in turn bowed lightly towards the halfuin. The brief moment of well-earned flattery made Parcifall roll her eyes and sigh. Winceham, always prowling about to boost his ego in many small ways that to him added up to enormous amounts, was about to make a sly, wry comment on the virtuous of proper language and etiquette. The grin on his face was a sure sign he was going to enjoy it no matter what Parcifal's reaction would be.
To his surprise though, the only words that came out of his mouth when his gaze ventured upwards before it came down again, had nothing to do with proper language and much less, etiquette:
"Blasted, gracious, all-mighty hairy cactuses and a turtle-mother's tit!"
Parcifal spent a moment with her flustered face stuck in a deep frown, trying to fit the words she had just heard into some order that might make sense. Her finger was already raised as a warning when she looked at Winceham with a seething glare and shouted:
"Recant, sirrah! I know an insult when I hear one, even if I can't fathom it!"
"Look!" cried Ned as he ran towards the bridgehead, his head stuck upwards as if he were training for a sword-eating contest.
Parcifal only had to look upwards to see both Theo and Bo were looking up as well, their faces and fur respectively strangely illuminated, standing perfectly still like under some sort of enchanting spell. Her hand instictively went for Encelados' once more but half-way it froze as well: the sight in front of her eyes had captivated her very soul, and the souls of everyone else as well, it seemed.
They were sailing under a majestic field of starlight; rivulets of stardust and beams of light wafted down from above, where the giant gnarly branches of an old, wizened tree dominated the starscape. Where before there had been nothing but the faintest pin-prickles of light and a dark, solemn void, now the ship felt like it drifted onwards amidst a giant forest in spring, like a butterfly loitering around a blooming flower.
Their course took them gracefully soaring by clusters of huge green leaves, easily the size of a hamlet or small village. The huge leaves emanated a faint greenish glow, while in the distance all around them, more and more leaves and branches appeared little by little, like some omnipotent invisible hand was clearing up a fog-stained window.
Swaths of light and soft shadows crept over them at an easy pace as the ship continued on its course, as if sailing under a soft, thin, silken-coloured bedding the likes of which every child would only ever hope to dream about. A tunnel of light and shadow had manifested itself on top of a playful, shining net that tossed and writhed about them in a beautiful dance that seemed to have a breath of its own.
"What kind of wonder is this?" Ned asked himself, a feeling of awe washing over him like a wet breeze would, every inch of his body feeling it bit by bit.
"It certainly looks like a tree," said Winceham, unable to peel his eyes away from a sight that now enveloped the whole of the ship.
"By Svarna, it's the most beautiful thing I've seen. Other than the Holy Mountain," said Parcifal with a stupefied grin on her face, all her worries and fears instantly gone, her smile beaming with a shine her armor could never match.
"See? I told you Bo had a good reason for being excited. Isn't that right Bo?" said Theo gleefully as he kept the ship steadily trained between a pair of nearly parallel branches that seemed to lead them on like a pair of guiding rails.
Then suddenly, literally out of nowhere, a ship the shape of a bumblebee and easily twice the size of the Mary Watchamacallit appeared at her prow; ridden with holes and clumsy patches of copper plating, sporting shoddy, badly trimmed sails. It would have been more fair to describe it as flying collection of scrap, rather than a ship per se.
The mere fact though that a ship like that could actually sail into space, suddenly made the whole endeavor of traveling through the stars acutely unremarkable. If it wasn't for a pair of large harpoons trained on the Mary Watchamacallit, it was certain that such a sorry excuse for a space-faring vessel wouldn't have drawn everyone's attention with a snap. The oversized sharp implements of hunting and warfare were manned by unruly pairs of short, ugly, mischievous-looking green little things wearing ridiculously extravagant goggles, oversized leather helmets and sadly, rather than shockingly, nothing more.
"It's an ambush!" cried Parcifal and clutched Encelados defiantly with both hands, warily checking all around her, as if she half-expected more invisible threats to materialise any minute. The blade though, remained a shiny grey steel color; it did not give off its blueish glow of warning against evil.
"It certainly looks like an ambush," said Winceham not knowing whether he should ready his stiletto or finally have a try at space swimming. In retrospect, swimming in space did not seem like a dangerous waste of time in view of the harpoons. Theo remained silent exchanging some oddly thoughtful looks with Bo, even if that meant mainly staring at the rabbit's frenzied twitching nose. Its eyes though did not flare up; a charred mayhem seemed an ever distant possibility.
"It's fairly normal, I think," said Theo coolly, his lips forming a thoughtful pout. Ned a worrisome comment to make.
"Which is, the gargantuan tree floating in space or being ambushed by naked goblins?"
Theo gave Ned a flat shrug, failing to see that an answer was not really expected of him. A deafening, snarling sound made everyone's face twitch and contort unpleasantly as it was amplified needlessly through some sort of makeshift speaker device:
"Oy! 'Tis Mr. Snog, Cappn' o' the Mary Celestial. We'll be towing her into the harbor, mind you. Don't try and scuttle the ship or break away; we've got hooks and arrows and cannoshot and all sorts o' thingamajigs to take care o' the runaways."
A cough, a loud buzz and a shrieking noise followed in amplified fashion before the voice died down. The little green creatures wearing the goggles seemed to be enjoying this immensely, judging from the way they giggled and toyed around with the oversized harpoon launchers. Crude-looking contraptions as these were, they were menacingly sharp and shiny nonetheless.
One of the crew jumped off the goblin ship and floated in space, holding a thick rope in hand; it was a towing line. The little goblin was wearing nothing but a toothless grin.
"What did he say? They're towing us in?" Ned asked Winceham who nodded affirmatively with a frown. Parcifal still held Encelados at a defensive stance, somehow waiting for the small, naked green goblin to transform into a towering champion of the goblin race. Reality, once more, failed to indulge her whims.
"What for?" she asked, while Theo again offered another shrug of almost complete indifference, seemingly too preoccupied with steering the ship, a soon-to-be irrelevant task.
"I'm up! I'm up! Stop that awful shouting!" said Lernea who jumped out of bed with her hair in a wild, ruffled shape. She rubbed her eyes profusely and looking wild-eyed, was apparently trying to understand why there was a large oak tree yelling at her in space.
"I really don't understand why they're naked", said Winceham and Ned threw him a wary look and a deeply troubled sigh before telling him:
"I really don't understand how answering that is going to help."
"I wasn't trying to help. They're sending one of their own to tie the line," said Winceham and pointed to the naked, grinning goblin.
"I see," said Ned and blinked vacantly with his hands in his pockets, while Parcifal couldn't help but ask all of them with a voice on the verge of breaking:
"Are you just willing to let them have this ship?"
"They're just towing us in. It's not dangerous. Unless the ship breaks in half; at least that's what I think," said Theo and petted Bo around his ears.
"Think of it as a harbor service," said Winceham stroking his beard, his eyes trying to focus where the goblin's genitals might possibly be. Lernea scratched her head and straightened her back before opening her eyes wide enough to let what has happening around her sink in. In a moment of sudden, angst-ridden clarity she exclaimed:
"We're being boarded!"
To which the goblin tying up the line on the prow answered flatly from afar:
"Yer bein' tooed."
"That probably means we're surrendering! I'm not surrendering to a bunch of naked ... Things!" cried Parcifal, Encelados trembling in the air hesitantly.
"Goblins, lass," said Winceham and nodded to himself before starting to walk towards the towliner onboard the Mary Watchamacallit. As both ships moved closer to the immense trunk that still looked not very far yet wasn't that close, the air around them started to pick up a heady, peculiar smell. The air smelled like a mix of oil, walnuts and grog gone horribly bad.
"Stay yer footing!" shouted the captain of the Mary Celestial, easily recognizable by an eye-patch and a ratskull-adorned black hat to boot. Winceham raised his hands in the air and lowered his head, trying to peek at the diminutive goblin's privates. His voice was a serious, well-thought out affair.
"I'm just curious about the size, you know?"
"Nun o' yer business, ya dwarven bastard," said the towlining goblin, its face scrounged up in an even uglier way than generally thought possible for a creature universally thought to be the low point of evolution.
"He's a halfuin, actually," said Theo and nodded to himself, looking pleased he had something helpful to offer in what he deemed to be a discussion of sorts.
"Of dwarven heritage, still," added Winceham not the least bit mindful of the insult but still focused on trying to guess the average girth of goblin genitals from an innocuous distance.
"Is no-one with me?" cried Parcifal in vain, while Lernea looked thoughtful, trying to quickly put the pieces together.
"We can't afford hasty decisions, sister. We must think this through," she said Lernea while Ned looked at her with a sad expression. His voice was weary and soft.
"They're already towing us in, Lernea. They took us completely by surprise; their ship might look like a heap of trash but I can count four cannons, two harpoon launchers and maybe two dozens of them leering at us for no good reason I'd care to think of."
"They're even smaller than Winceham!" cried out Parcifal in wild-eyed protest only to receive Winceham's sharp, irate reply.
"Never underestimate the small folk, lass!" he shouted.
The goblin onboard the Mary Whatchamacallit lit a pipe and nodded to Winceham. It decided to share some appreciative thoughts with Winceham.
"Now ya tell'er what's right, ya dwarven bastard."
Winceham gave the goblin a curt bow and replied congenially:
"Can't be wrong when speaking from the heart, dear sir."
"Dear sir, he says! He's calling the pirate goblin, a dear sir!" cried out Parcifal, Encelados waved about by her fumbling hands more like a banner than a sword proper.
"That's his prerogative, sister. It's a form of negotiation. You should do well to take notice of Mister Winceham's diplomatic skills," said Lernea and searched the trunk near the bed on deck for her tin of tea. Ned wished he could do more than simply sigh, but by the look of things, sighing would have to do.
He approached Parcifal with a friendly, knowing look. She looked at him with a desperate longing to let her have a go at them all, but he took her by the shoulder and told her with an unshakeable calm:
"Maybe next time."
Parcifal looked at Ned with befuddled sadness. All she could utter was a half-croaked, puppy-eyed disagreement that quickly fell on its own face.
"Ah, no worries," said Theo wearing the smile of a child on its first trip to the sea. "She'll be right," he told her with a misplaced sense of assurance.
A voice echoed around them. It was a loud, metallic screeching covered in overtones of disgust which was a very rare occurence amongst goblins.
"You, the dwarf! Stop harassing my crew or you'll be fired upon!"
The air inside the goblin dockmaster's office had an almost suffocating quality. The atmosphere felt thick as oil, smelling of ink and rough, cheap paper. Tallyflop's dockmaster's office was built inside a hollowed out section of the giant oak's skin. Its walls rose steeply into a dark, shadowy place with no ceiling in sight. Goblin helpers and staff could be seen running atop tiny overhead railings and metal grates; they passed through glass pipes, along rope bridges and wooden ladders. The almost always insidious-looking creatures appeared suddenly and disappeared just as quickly through small trapdoors built in the wooden walls. Sniggering like madmen at times, many of them carried large stacks of papers strapped on their back; they were all invariably naked.
Lernea's look darted around uncomfortably. It was as if she felt soiled by her mere presence inside that room. Parcifal wore a brooding expression; her hands were stuffed in her armpits. She was pouting like a child scorned.
Winceham looked intently at the stacks of papers and scrolls rising up into nothingness. He could make out the goblins above, criscrossing the room with all the fury of rats in a cage. Stroking his fine beard, the odd look on his leathery face meant he still couldn't make up his mind about the goblins genitalia. He looked committed; he just had to know.
Bo sat on Theo's shoulder idly. The bunny rabbit was practically asleep; the flames on his eyes were nowhere to be seen. Theo was silently trying to count the books and ledgers surrounding them; he had managed to start over and over again more than a few times.
Ned sported a troubled look and a screwed up face. He was trying to understand what it was exactly they were dealing with.
"What do you mean the ship's impounded?", said Ned as calmly and clearly as possible. The goblin sitting down behind an oversized desk in front of him, had earlier identified himself as Tallyflop's dockmaster who went by the name of Zed.
The goblin was wearing nothing more than a smudged, shattered monocle. It was very doubtful that the monocle was able to serve its original purpose, but Zed nevertheless straightened it out before giving an answer.
"I mean, it's being withheld," said the dockmaster without looking up from a huge ledger that was easily three times his size. Ned allowed for a small pause before he cleared his throat.
"On what grounds?" demanded Ned. Parcifal's eyes narrowed; her focus turned on the goblin's head.
"As per contract," replied the dockmaster tersely with a shrilly voice, flipping some of the pages almost at random.
"We never signed any contract!" exclaimed Parcifal and red hot anger poured from her voice. The dockmaster raised his head and looked at her through the monocle, blinking eratically and trying - impossible though it seemed - to focus for a moment or two. He dived into the huge ledger in front of him again before answering; he waved a bony hand dismissively.
"How is that even possible?" shouted Ned, his face trying to express a righteous beffudlement words could not.
"Under statutory law," said the dockmaster calmly, shooting a straight eye at Ned for the first time.
"Meaning?" asked Ned with and threw his hands in the air with exasperation.
The goblin took a moment to himself; he then looked at all of the party crammed inside the little space that remained in front of his desk. With a raised brow he said flatly before returning his attention to his ledger, dipping a pen in some ink and adding a smudge that highly resembled goblin genitalia on the side of a page:
"The ship's being impounded."
"I can see that. Where does it say you have the authority to do that?" said Ned pointing to the goblin crew outside the tiny window on their back. The goblin wrecking crew were hoisting down the sails. Lernea looked behind her shoulder and saw a large metal barrel-like construct on wheels, pushed on a ramp. It had a number of saws and hatchets attached to it and left a trail of smoke as it vibrated violently on the Mary Whatchamacallit's deck. The next moment, it exploded with a dumbed-down thud, senting perhaps a dozen goblins flying off into space. A rush of maniac laughter and snot-brained giggling followed suit before the wrecking crew went back to what appeared to be just another day's work for goblins.
"They really seem to be going out on a limb," said Winceham with a grin and Ned looked at him as if he felt his coinpurse had suddenly gone missing.
"Same place it says you can take it off Mr. Culliper there," replied the dockmaster and barely nodded to the shackled figure of Culliper, his mouth gagged with a very unhygienic-looking rag. Culliper was propped upright, tightly pressed between Lernea and Parcifal; he rolled his eyes but no-one was paying any attention to him, except perhaps for Ned.
Ned shot the pirate a hard look. His jaw tightened and his face became ashen gray. Ned's mind went back a few days; it was a very misfortunate series of events that had led them all the way to space and Tallyflop. The matter of Culliper's fate remained still a matter to settle. Ned felt the pressure piling up; he looked like he was about to grab the dockmaster by the throat when Zed cleared his throat just in time to prevent that.
"Says on section eight, paragraph fifteen dash seven of the 'Bloody Infamous and Rather Fair Codex of Ethical Piracy', and I quote: 'Once ye take a ship, ye partake in all it is ridden with, be it bloody tax, bloody berthing charges, bloody refitting and in any bloody way legal or not so much investments or expenses accrued in relation to the ship's hull or bloody floating bits thereof'."
Ned took a deep breath and cringed his face with a hand. He appeared to gather every iota of self-control and shouted at Zed, barely constraining himself from having a go at him.
"The ship owes us money," replied Zed flatly.
A loud creaking sound was then heard, followed by a couple of thuds and reverberating knocks. The floor vibrated a little, grabbing almost everyone's attention, except for Ned and the dockmaster; their gazes were locked in a silent, mysterious struggle. Outside, at the pier, the goblin wrecking crew had just chopped off the main mast and were trying to peel off it what had previously been a somewhat less flat, more alive, goblin. There wasn't much laughter involved, at least not until the moment one of them brandished a literally bloody spatula, much to the merriment of his co-workers.
Parcifal exploded with a shout, condemning the lack of logic behing the wrecking of the Mary Whatchamacallit, rather than simply stating the obvious.
"But you're bloody wrecking it!"
Theo was now trying to count goblin parts and limbs flying off from the ship now and then, while Winceham's fascination with goblin genitalia seemed to finally come to an end. There was a glad look of relief on his smiling face when he shook his head as if everything finally made sense to him.
"It's one bloody size smaller then!"
"Ah, I see your friends here like to talk legalese. We're wrecking it because it's our bloody prerogative, ain't it?" said Zed with what could've been a smile if it wasn't impossibly lopsided, the dockmaster's saw-like teeth failing to follow the geometry of the mouth.
"How are you going to get anything worthwhile from that ship by hacking it to pieces?" said Parcifal frustrated, while Ned looked engrossed in thought, his eyes wide shut.
"You're not very experienced in the shipping business, are you?" remarked Zed and added another blot of ink in the shape of goblin genitalia on some page on his ledger, before he turned the page and went back to trailing some other piece of text.
"Is there a problem with that?" said Parcifal sharply and tried to approach the goblin threateningly. She moved about a couple of inches before bumping onto Ned's back. Her sister shook her head disapprovingly and motioned her to just stay put.
"Ned can handle it," she said and after a look at Ned added, "For the time being."
Ned swallowed hard and nodded thoughtfully to himself before turning to look at the ship being hacked and sawed without a lot of regard for the craftmanship or the safety of the wrecking crew.
"You're selling it for scrap, isn't that right?" asked Ned pointing at the dockmaster.
"If by scrap you mean firewood, that's right," replied Zed.
"Firewood? Isn't that liable to catch on fire? Fire is a dangerous thing, isn't it?" said Theo suddenly and everyone looked at him as if realising for the first time he might not be actually aware of his surroundings most of the time. On the other hand, Bo seemed quite alert and perky; yet his eyes weren't lit up. He simply wiggled his nose and scratched an ear with a hind leg.
"It doesn't make much sense to hack down the whole supporting structure on top of which this city is built upon. It'd be like turning a castle's foundations into a quarry," said Lernea nodding thoughtfully.
"Still, it can't be all that valuable. I mean, how much firewood does a city this size need, really? It's not like it's that cold in space," said Winceham with a shrug of his shoulders that went largely unnoticed, especially since he stood smack in the middle of them all, hardly able to breathe properly, crammed as they were.
"Steam engines," said Ned with a sudden flash of insight. The goblin nodded affirmatively and tried to smile congenially; the end result though was less than inviting.
"By steam, you mean that thing that's like smoke, except it only appears to be around baths and hot springs and such?" asked Winceham, a very uncertain expression painted on his face. He absent-mindedly scratched his chin, breadcrumbs falling off his beard. None bothered to answer him; they were rather trying to absorb the implicit declaration that the smell about Winceham wasn't just a matter of unfortunate timing, but rather a way of life. The minimal space inside the dockmaster's office made it all but impossible to ignore.
"Well, now that we've got everything sorted out, would you be bloody kind enough to leave? Work just keeps piling up," said the dockmaster and as luck would have it, a goblin passed overhead riding a small unicycle on a rope and tossed an impossibly thick book on a huge stack that came crushing down barely a moment later, adding a little bit of height in a small hill behind Zed made entirely out of paper.
"What's a steam engine?" asked Parcifal with a quizzical expression; it was obvious she had never heard of such a thing before.
"It's an apparatus that creates force applied to a system that can create movement through the use of the properties of water or other liquids in their gaseous forms," said Theo matter-of-factly and petted Bo behind the ears. The bunny seemed to concur, if one were an expert on reading whiskers. Theo's answer once again drew some weird looks but this time those were looks of surprise, coupled with the usual failure to really understand what he was talking about.
"It's what makes the ships fly," said Ned with a face shaken by a sudden, acute realisation. He looked at Lernea and without uttering a word, he saw that same look mirrored in her face. She was at a loss for words for a moment. Zed was trying to look inconspicuous while eyeing a strangely illustrated centerfold page dangling from his ledger, containing fancy, dressed up goblins of indeterminate sex.
"You're not selling the metal bits as well?" asked Lernea with a rather off-beat tone, as if she was being merely curious. Ned picked her train of thought, nodded and went a step farther:
"We'll sell you Culliper in exchange for that metal chair belowdecks."