Chapter 11! Short post today as we've got a lot on. I'm back at work and generally things are motoring but I still found time to do this, so that bodes well for future updates.
“Get this crate loaded on, lad. Chip chop.”
Trip shook his head, levering himself up from the crate he was sat on. The sun was high in the air and they had been moving heavy objects for hours. Wearily, he turned and picked up the unwieldy wooden box. It had ‘Fragile: arbarometers’ stencilled on to the top with some sort of paint.
His aching feet carried him onto the Brass Bottomed Belle and into the small covered shed that served as a temporary cargohold and wheelhouse. He put the crate in an empty space and looked around.
The wheelhouse was crammed full of brass tubes and dials; glass glinted in the sunlight, covering gauges for ‘steam pressure’ and ‘thrust’ and ‘torque’. It was quite unlike anything he had seen before, at the Monastery or since.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” came a light voice from outside.
Lauren huffed in to the space and put down her own crate. She stood up straight, hands in the small of her back. “Ooh, I think I need a lie down.”
“She is beautiful. Thank you for what you’re doing for us.”
“No problem. So, Trip, right?” Trip nodded. “Is that short for anything or-“
“No. It’s just my name,” he replied. “I’ve never really known whether my parents called me that for a reason.”
"Sounds like spooky foreshadowing, maybe? You taking this trip and all."
"Heh." He nudged the crate she had just brought in with one sandalled foot. “Are there any more?”
“Nope. Last one. We’re pretty much good to go.” Lauren untied the apron she had been wearing for the loading. “This is all the important stuff!”
“What is all this, anyway?”
Instead of answering straight away, she bent and opened one of the lids. It was filled with straw, which she moved out of the way; nestled inside it were small globes of glass containing some sort of metal.
“It’s Dad’s legacy to me. Did you see the lights in the workshop? They’re electric.”
“I know what electricity is. They’ve been working with it for years.”
“Who’s they?” she said with a mischievous smile playing around her lips.
“Just… people.” Trip blushed. “Y’know. I read it in a report.”
Lauren started to put the lid back on the crate. “Well, the foremost of those ‘people’ was my father. The electric lights we have now are little better than candles; they’re expensive to run, delicate, impossible to maintain without a qualified SIC epsilon-level engineer and, frankly, horribly ugly.” Tapping the top of the now-sealed crate, she smiled. “These are the answer. Cheaper, almost disposable, these will revolutionise electric lighting. Didn’t you see how bright it was in the workshop? That’s at least a hundred candle-power light in there, from one bulb.”
“And you’re taking them to Fennica…” Trip said, sorting through his memory, “But not to the SIC. You must be taking them to someone with money, someone who could help you get the edge over the College… the Duke of Fennica!”
“Exactly,” she said, and patted him on the head. “You’re pretty smart! The Duke himself has expressed an interest in having sole distribution rights over these. I hear that the SIC insulted him in some way and, well, he’s perfect.”
“Who’s perfect?” Victor said, stepping on board. He was carrying the two travelling packs, which he threw on top of the crates.
“You are, of course,” Lauren said, winking at Trip. He smothered a grin as Victor looked from one to the other.
“Hm. Reck’n we can leave now?”
“Pull in the gangplank; I locked up the workshop, so I’m all set if you are!”
Lauren’s infectious happiness caught Trip up in its wake; he found himself grinning as she pulled levers and the rumbling under his feet increased in measure. With a lurch, they set off.
Victor lost no time in sitting at the back of the ship in the shade, sword out and whetstone in hand. Swaying slightly as the boat moved out into the middle of the wide river, Trip wandered up to watch.
“Nothing,” Trip said. He sat and listened to the rhythmic metal scraping sound mixing with the various rattles and throbbing of the Belle. Then it stopped mid-stroke.
Trip bit his lip and frowned. “I just wanted to say… thanks.”
“Being here, I guess. Teaching me to fight. Saving me in that dirt cave.”
“Hm.” The sound of the whetstone started again, slower this time. “You paid me, boy. ‘Member? Hired me.”
“You din’t… didn’t have to say yes, though,” Trip replied. There was a silence between them that stretched on for minutes.
“I’m sorry about your house,” Trip finally ventured.
“’S just a house,” Victor replied.
“When this is all over, I’ll help you find a new one.”
After a while, the boy got up and left the man to his tools. There was nothing more he could bring himself to say at that moment, and then air seemed too fresh to carry the weight of bad feeling.
The Belle made amazing time. Trip could feel the wind in his face as he stood at what he now knew was the prow of the ship, not the front. Victor was taking a turn at the wheel and the river was clear as glass all around them.
She placed a slender hand on his shoulder. "Victor told me. About the monastery and… everything."
"No, it's not!" She spun him round. "You went through something terrible! I know I don't know you, hardly met you. But if you want to talk… I'm here." Trip looked up into her eyes, as if properly seeing her for the first time. They were grey and serious, her hair blazing around her face.
He shrugged her hand off, then turned back to face the front. "Thanks, but I'm fine. What about you; why did you agree to come all this way with us?"
She sighed heavily. "Back at the workshop, remember I told you about the SIC? The Science and Industry College. They've been sending men out every month trying to force me to hand over Dad's best designs. Let's just say that I was never on the best of terms with them; it always seemed like they stole Dad's best stuff from him."
"So aren't you worried they'll just come in and take it while you're gone?"
"I suppose they could; they're not criminals, though, just bad news." She pulled the locket out of her shirt again and started absentmindedly twirling it through her fingers. "Dad always used to say he'd keep on their good side just enough to get the resources he needed; now that he's gone, his reputation's gone with him." Lauren gripped the railing, frustration evident in her every movement. "They don't believe women can be good engineers, you see."
"But that's ridiculous," Trip protested. "You got the Belle running, and I saw PAM back at the workshop; all those things you've done. It doesn't matter if you're a woman, as long as you have hands and a brain. Right?"
Impulsively Lauren hugged him tightly. "Would that all the world thought like you do, Trip," she said, and he revelled in the feel of a comforting arm around him.
Trip felt Lauren’s arm tense around him; he looked up to see some sort of wooden boat making its way along the wide river towards them. It had no sail, no oars, no apparent means of going at all.
Then a figure jumped up onto the bow, arms spread; far too wide for a human. It opened its bark-covered mouth impossibly wide and screeched, sharp foot-long wooden talons snicking out.
As the other vessel came alongside, the tree-demon howled into the air towards him.