The Sky's Embrace, Chapter 4: The Edge of Descent
Baako’s voice boomed across the deck, “Battle stations! All hands on deck! Battle stations!”
Ekeene walked to the forward railing of the aft castle to a series of cranks. He jerked the knot securing the first handle and turned its crank. Three high-pitched bells rang out throughout the deck of the ship.
There was a brief pause as the present crew stared stunned at the claxon. As he cranked the bells’ mechanism, three panels opened below the railing to reveal a red to-arms insignia. This visual helped the crew establish their situation and orders. In Baako’s many years of service, he had seen the insignias save more than a few lives.
Ekeene’s gravelly voice barked as he glared at the deck. “You heard the Captain, you stone footed-louts. Get to your stations!”
There was an explosion of movement as the crew collectively sprung into action. Crewmen scrambled up and down the deck and masts as they prepared themselves and the Maiden for battle.
Baako took a breath then his voice boomed across the deck again. “Harness in! Prepare for rapid descent! Drop full canvas! Prime the ballista with scattershot! Ready your bows, fill your quivers!”
Ekeene cranked a few more handles to open up the panels with these order insignias.
Baako looked at the helmsman. “Master Bromont, you will maintain control of the helm.”
Bromont nodded as he ignored Spritz who buzzed around his head in a zigzag of color. “Aye, Captain.”
Baako glanced at an ornate structure with a series of tightly bound strings built into the very back of the aft castle. This panel, which was reminiscent of a harp in design if not function, was arguably the most crucial piece of equipment of the entire ship. It was tended by Isaac Jolovich, a portly bright-eyed youth who stared at Baako with a hopeful expression.
Baako suppressed a smile. “Continue tending to the harp, Master Jolovich.”
Jolovich smiled despite himself. “Aye, Captain!” he said with unfurled enthusiasm.
Baako secured his harness to the railing in front of the signal handles. He watched the young sailor pluck a few strings deftly and felt the vibrations maintain their even tones below deck.
He nodded in approval. Not that Jolovich saw it. He was too focused on his task at hand. In the central parts of the Kingdom, very few sailors Jolovich’s age would have gotten a chance to work the harp on a cloudship. It was a highly coveted role. The harp panel was key to a cloud ship’s ability to float in the air. The harp’s strings activated the resonance chambers that comprised most of the ship’s hull. The resonance chamber was a hollow structure made of a unique lumber called harmony wood. When the harmony wood was exposed to the harp’s vibrations, it repelled the pull of gravity. It was this mechanism that generated the ship’s lift.
Reasonably Sailing Guild officers were very choosy with whom they granted such an enormous responsibility. If a sailor played the harp too roughly, it would cause a rough ride, an undesirable and dangerous prospect to face so high in the air. Play it too clumsily, a harpist could damage or even fracture the resonance chamber or capsize the ship, causing the crew to dangle from their lines or plummet to the land miles below.
Baako, whose career had expanded many ships of the sky, quietly delighted in discovering Jolovich’s affinity for the harp. Baako made sure he cultivated the young man’s natural talent by increasing Jolovich’s time at the harp’s on the duty roster. Jolovich, for his part, seemed to bask in it at every given opportunity.
Ekeene said, “If it pleases you, Captain, I’m going to help the crew prepare.”
“Go right ahead, Lieutenant. We have things well in hand up here,” said Baako.
The younger officer’s scarred face broke into a quick grin. With a nod, he unhooked his harness’s security line from railing. Forgoing the stairs, Ekeene vaulted the railing and landed agilely on the deck. Without preamble, he started to call out orders.
“Set course for fifteen degrees to port!
His gravel-like cursing rung out over the crew shouts. “By the Parent Gods’ blighted eyes, what are you doing, Jenta?”
“Cromlin, cinch up that chest strap, or you’ll be finding yourself in the Sky Mother’s holy embrace!”
“The Captain said, scattershot! Scattershot, not the harpoons, you dull-witted blights!”
As Ekeene reached the middle of the deck, the door to the crew’s quarters banged open as more men poured out. At their lead was Derrick Hendrix, a powerfully-built bald man wearing an apron, who towered above everyone else. He wiped his hands furiously on his apron as he looked around at the chaos with a half-smile.
Just behind him was a wiry man with a gray beard and tangle of braided dreadlocks that reached his back. Unlike the other sailors, who typically sported short recurve bows, the older man held a longbow at his side. The weapon seemed to be as much a part of him as his left arm. This was Percival Spindell, whom the crew referred to as Spider.
Spider spotted Ekeene first. He nudged Hendrix, and the two headed towards the Lieutenant.
Spider gave an easy salute, “Lieutenant. You find some trouble for us to handle?”
Ekeene returned a quick salute. “We just might have, Spider. Think you can handle it?”
Spider patted a ballista in the middle of the deck. “I’ll see what I can manage.”
Hendrix cracked his knuckles. “That’s what I’m talking about! It’s been some time since we peppered the side of something with scattershot.”
Ekeene grinned. “Well, try not to enjoy it too much, Derrick.”
Hendrix snorted. “I can’t make no promises, sir.”
The larger sailor then pulled a massive lever at the ballista’s side, with a loud Ka-thunk! He and few other sailors slid it into a centralized spot on the deck. He engaged the clamps beneath it and looked back at Spider for confirmation.
The older man nodded. “That’ll do for now.”
Spider, who had more experience than anyone else, including the captain, at ranged combat, strode over and inspected another group of sailors, setting up the second ballista on the forward deck.
Ekeene left them to do their preparations. He dropped down a ladder that descended a small tunnel that lead to the Maiden’s lower deck. As soon as he reached the bottom, Ekeene clipped his harness line to the guide bar mounted to the ship’s belly. He stood on platform that ran the length of the vessel. The deck itself was only a few paces wide and other than its small railings had an open view of the sky and ground far below. The smaller crew stationed on the lower deck were already harnessed in and tending to the twin horizontal sails and the single ballista on the forward deck.
Cornelius Binns approached him with an agility that belied his mass. His line slid on the bar in his wake as he strode up.
“Ambassador, how goes the preparations down here?” Ekeene asked.
Binns didn’t so much speak, as intone his words as a declaration, “My men have things well in hand, sir. We’re investigating the smoke coming from the McSteads, right?”
Ekeene nodded. “You have a good eye, Master Binns.”
“I don’t have anything but an aching back and heartburn, Lieutenant. The credit goes to my lookout, Master Pierson. He spotted the smoke and alerted me to it just before the claxon rang.”
He pointed to a pot-marked youth holding a spyglass to his eye on the forward.
“Master Pierson has keen eyes then.”
Binns agreed. “That he does, sir. He could spot the dimple on a maiden’s buttock from a span off.”
“A useful talent to have,” Ekeene joked.
Binns flung an arm around Ekeene and squeezed him tight. “That it is, Lieutenant, but trust me, such attention to details can only lead the surveyor down two paths, trouble or matrimony.”
“Only two?” Ekeene inquired.
“It’s only one in actuality, my young friend. When it comes to the blessed sex, it’s all trouble. Matrimony only makes it a little more sanctioned.”
“I see,” said Ekeene.
“You don’t, my friend, but a strapping young lad such as yourself, you will someday.” Binns chuckled. “More likely than not, you’ll already be in the young lady’s dimpled snare.”
Ekeene smiled. “I can think of worst traps.”
Binns laughed. “And that, my lad, is how they get you!”
On the above deck, movement on the main mast drew Baako’s eyes. A slim, serene woman adorned in robes of a somber gray and rich blues, stepped off the ladder. Once her bare feet touched the deck, she lifted her head with eyes closed and inhaled deeply as she took a moment to enjoy the breeze blowing through her abundant ebony hair. With a sigh, she opened her eyes and fixed Baako with her lilac-colored gaze.
Baako’s jaw tightened.
Seemingly oblivious to the chaos going on around her, Zephoni Featherheart approached the aft castle. Baako waited expectantly. As the ship’s Windsinger, Zephoni’s role was vital to the ship’s day to day operations, but she was not technically a part of the crew. She belonged to the Mystic Guild from the Windsinger sect. The Windsingers and the Sailing Guild had enjoyed an alliance since the days the first cloudships took to the air. It was a partnership born out of necessity and mutual support and unrivaled by any other factions in Valenthrall. The Sailing Guild gave the Windsingers a chance to get closer to their sky goddess, Lisema’s sacred realm. In turn, the Windsingers would sing to the Lisema and ask her for favorable winds to fill the cloudship sails.
Still, having someone on their ship that wasn’t necessarily subject to their authority did not sit well with some captains—Baako among them.
Zephoni regraded him with an open smile spread on her serene face. She spoke with a soft voice that seemed to be on the edge of the song, “Your crew is in quite the frantic state, Captain Baako.”
Baako’s back stiffened, and his eyes narrowed for an instant before schooled his expression.
Zephoni’s smile faltered as she noted his reaction. “I apologize, Captain. I did not intend to give offense.”
Baako waved the remark away. “And you did not give any, Windsinger. We are preparing to make haste. There something on the horizon that needs investigating.”
She nodded sagely. “I smelled it in the air. I heard the crew say that the lookouts have spotted smoke. Do you think it means trouble?”
“As the King’s western arm, we must ever be prepared for such eventualities,” said Baako looking past her at the horizon beyond.
“Yes, representing the king is important, but I shall leave matters of the royalty’s interests in your capable hands. I am here on behalf of our Goddess, Lisema.”
Baako arched an eyebrow. “Indeed.”
“I do not believe that the two interests are not mutually exclusive,” said Zephoni.
“I’m sure,” Baako said curtly.
Zephoni raised an eyebrow. “Is there something wrong, Captain?”
“Not at all, Windsinger Featherheart. Any wind that you could request of the Mother of Skies would be deeply appreciated.”
Zephoni fixed him with her purple eyes. He felt that her stare could penetrate his very soul, but Baako met her gaze evenly.
A breeze blew across her face, and Zephoni averted her gaze tilted her head as if listening to something he could not hear. She looked back at Baako her serene smile reappeared, although it also seemed to have a note of sadness too. “Do not worry, Captain Baako. I will sing to the Sky Mother and ask for her gentle favor on your behalf. Whether or not, she will bestow it.” She shrugged. “Lisema exhales her breath where she wills, but I shall ask at your behest all the same.”
Baako nodded. “Thank you, Windsinger.”
Zephoni sauntered away with a grace that belied her circumstances. Baako noted, as he always had, how the Windsinger, unlike the rest of her shipmates, did not wear a safety harness. Her robes whipped about her like a broiling thunderstorm.
After a few steps, she raised her staff to the air and began to sing. The lyrics were strange and otherworldly. Her voice echoed with a peculiar resonance that was beyond the vocal range of her usual tone. The song grew in complexity. Her voice flowed from fluttering wisps, like the wings of a butterfly, to howling whistles like a breeze through a lonely canyon, only to be punctuated by booming shouts, like thunder.
Baako watched her performance transfixed as Zephoni’s song flowed across the deck. The vane of her windfinder started to turn slowly as the winds at their backs began to blow harder.